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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Julius Exner

From the Art Academy's Plaster Molds, 1843, Julius Exner
(possibly a self-portrait).
It's not often in dealing with a given artist that one has the chance to compare his or her first painting with that person's last. Of course, such comparisons, while interesting, may not be particularly enlightening. Recently I came upon a little-known Danish painter named Julius Exner, born in 1825. Although he longed to become a history painter in his youth, the Danish academic art world he grew into during the 1840s was, instead encouraging young artist to paint that which was Danish...virtually anything that was Danish...especially as having to do with the rapidly changing way of life among the rural middle classes. Translated, that meant genre painting. So, the ambitious young artist, after traveling about Europe for a few years, returned to Copenhagen and worked to capture on canvas the "now and then" of Danish life. What he painted and how he painted was a moving target. He lived to be eighty-five, dying in 1910. His first major painting, From the Art Academy's Plaster Molds (top), was painted when he was eighteen. One or both figures may be self-portraits. He was awarded a "Little Silver Medallion" for it.

Portrait of the Artist, 1910, Julius Exner (his last work).
Whether or not young Julius Exner used himself as a model in his student work, there is no doubt he finally got around to painting himself in 1910. His Portrait of the Artist (above), painted sixty-seven years later, was his final work. With the possible exception of the 1843 painting, it is one of only two self-portraits (an earlier one dates from 1906). Both the 1843 and the 1910 paintings are remarkable works, the first for its surprising precocity, the second for its warmth and quiet verisimilitude in coming from the brush of an octogenarian. The first depicts how he learned his art, the last the temporal nature of such learning. That is, art persists, life does not.

Visiting Grandfather, 1855, Julius Exner--one of his most popular works
(judging from the number of artists who have copied it).
We are also fortunate in dealing with Exner in that his art and life were well chronicled. We can pick and choose examples from virtually every decade of his career, from his 1855 Visiting Grandfather (above) followed by his Meal Time Gathering (below) painted in 1868. In the interim, Exner's work grew darker; his light is more focused. The 1868 work seems livelier and more lighthearted. He seems to have encountered Caravaggio in his travels to Italy.

Meal Time Gathering, 1868, Julius Exner
I love Exner's 1878 painting from his time spent on the Danish island of Fano. As the excessively long title suggests, Fano Farmers Laughing at the Painter's Work in His Absence (below), genre art was as entertaining and exciting to the culturally starved peasants of this remote island as a modern-day 3-D movie seemed to us a few years ago when they were again revived. It's uncertain whether they found the painting itself amusing, or were simply amazed at the novelty of it.

Fano Farmers Laughing at the Painter's Work in His Absence, 1878, Julius Exner
Milk Chamber, 1909, Julius Exner
The 1880s were Julius Exner's academic years, the time during his prime when he did most of his teaching at the Danish Royal Academy where he fostered such talent as Paul Gustav Fischer, G.F. Clement, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Julius Paulsen, Peder Severin Krøyer, and a group which later came to be known as the Skagen Painters. However, from the late 1890s, we see Exner's Morning Industry (below, 1899), a soft, gentle, quiet little moment of rural Danish peace and tranquility. We might come to the conclusion that Exner was mellowing somewhat in his later years, except for the delightful wooing of the peasant milkmaid in his 1909 Milk Chamber (left), possibly his final genre painting. Despite the rural trappings, there seems a distinctly modern ambience to the work, a brash, "hands-on" courtship unlikely, especially in a rural setting, only a few years before.

Morning Industry, 1899, Julius Exner


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