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Friday, September 5, 2014

Jens Juel

Jens Juel, Self-portrait, 1766, at the age of 21.
Jens Juel, Self-portrait, 1765, age 20.
It's no secret among those wishing to become artists that there is no substitute for academic training and intern-like experience. Although much I've learned about painting, especially in my early years, I learned by basically teaching myself, I'm far from what one would call a self-taught painter. No art instructor can hold a student's hand in his own and guide it and a brush laden with paint across a canvas and hope to teach that student how to paint. It's not like learning to play golf. The key element in learning to paint is learning to handle paint, knowing intuitively how much paint is on the brush, where it is on the brush, how wet it is, what color (or colors) it is, and in effect, being able to predict each time, with a fair degree of accuracy, exactly how bringing that paint in contact with the surface, utilizing various movements of the hand, will cause that paint to come to rest. (It's not as easy as I make it sound.) That, my friends, cannot be taught. It has to be successfully experienced again and again and again. Though not as life-threatening, it's the equivalent of a surgeon learning to handle a scalpel.
Jens Juel, Self-portrait, 1775, age 30.
Jens Juel, Self-portrait, 1770, age 25.
In other words, an artist learns to paint by painting. Everything else he or she must know, is learned by watching, listening, understanding, experimenting, following, repetition, and persistence, combined with proving all the above to a competent instructor. That's the academic end for which there is, as I said in the beginning, no substitute. The Danish portrait painter Jens Juel personifies this fact of artistic life. Born the illegitimate son of Vilhelmine Elisabeth Juel in 1745, his biological father is unknown beyond that fact that the baby may have been named after him. In any case, when the boy was just a year old, his unwed mother married a schoolmaster named Jørgen Jørgensen from Gamborg, Denmark, (a coastal village south of Fredericia), which no doubt explains the artist's life-long devotion to academics. Almost immediately after he finished his own schooling, Juel began training others, teaching at the Danish Royal Academy the last twenty years of his short life. He died in 1802 at the age of fifty-seven.

Jens Juel Self-portrait with his wife, 1791, age 46. 
Every portrait artist should paint lots of self-portraits, the best marketing tool possible.
Christian VII, 1789, Jens Juel
Even as a young boy, Jens decided he wanted to be a portrait painter. At about the age of fifteen, he began his apprenticeship in Hamburg, followed some five or six years later by enrollment in the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. There he spent another five years winning gold medals and perfecting his art in the area of religious painting. Following that it was on to Rome for four years, followed by stints in Paris and Geneva for another two years. By this time he was around thirty-three years old. That's not to make him out as some kind of 18th-century professional student. Even from his teen years, he was earning a reputation and a sufficient sum to live on as a portrait painter, which he no doubt did during the remainder of is lengthy formal training and international internship. By 1780, when he finally returned to Copenhagen, he was painting royal portraits so successfully he was to later to become the court painter of Christian VII, the ruler of Denmark at the time (left).

The Ryberg Family, 1797, Jens Juel, somewhat reminiscent of Gainsborough.
You know you've made the grade as a portrait painter when the king sits patiently for you, hours upon hours, bearing a heavy crown, bulky robe, orb and scepter. Juels is considered the best Danish portrait artist of his time, which would seem to be quite an accolade except that his "time" in that position was less than twenty years, and Denmark, wasn't exactly the robust center of the European art world. Virtually every country on the continent had its "best" portrait painter, not to mention its best history painter, best religious painter, best landscape painter and...well, you get the idea. Juel was the proverbial big fish in a small pond while the country of Denmark was something of a small fish in a big pond. How does Juel compare to other European portrait painters? Well, as can be seen in his portrait of Christian VII (above, left) while he seems adept at handling the royal vestments appropriate to the high office of regal kingliness, Juel was no Hyacinth Rigaud, and fell far short of Rembrandt. He was no Anthony van Dyck, either, though his 1797 Ryberg Family (above) is somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Gainsborough. He does, however, compare favorably with America's number-one court painter at the time, Gilbert Stuart.

The highest honor the Danes can bestow on their "best" portrait painter.

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