Danish artist in Paris, Rome and Copenhagen

C. W. Eckersberg (1783-1853)

from 1 June to 14 August 2016

For the first time, France is hosting a monographic exhibition of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, a major Danish artist of the 19th century. 125 works are being revealed, including paintings that have not been shown in public for over 100 years.

The Marble Steps Leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, 1814-1816
Oil on canvas, 32.5 × 36.5 cm
© Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhague

On view during Autumn 2015 at the Copenhagen Statens Museum for Kunst and subsequently at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, the exhibition at the Fondation Custodia is arranged in several stages. On the first floor of the Hôtel Lévis-Mirepoix, the paintings are presented in chronological and thematic order: the early years in Denmark, in France and Italy, before the development of his art in Copenhagen. In the basement, the visitor will find drawings and sketches by the artist, including twelve sheets from the collections of the Fondation Custodia.

The years in Paris and Rome

Pont Royal seen from the Quai Voltaire, 1812
Oil on canvas, 55.5 × 71 cm
© Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhague

A leader of the Copenhagen School, the young Eckersberg won a prize that allowed him to study in France between 1810 and 1813. The year he spent in the studio of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was crucial for his time in Paris. This artist’s teaching relied exclusively on study of the live model and was an innovation for Eckersberg. The historical scenes of the artist’s early works changed character immediately under the influence of the French master.

The Fondation Custodia exhibition includes several drawings and paintings from this period. While Eckersberg’s ambition was to devote himself to history painting, a much more prestigious genre at the time, he also began to create works in another style. These included landscapes made during the promenades that brought him around the Île-de-France and urban views of Paris such as the Pont Royal seen from the Quai Voltaire (1812). In this painting, the artist, in the role of a simple observer, has set out to render the slightest details with great precision. 

View through three Arches of the Colosseum in Rome, 1815
Oil on canvas, 32 × 49.5 cm
© Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhague

Eckersberg left France for Italy in June 1813 and settled in Rome, moving into the house where Thorvaldsen also lived, and they became close friends. In this burgeoning, international artistic environment, Eckersberg concentrated on plein air painting that allowed him to capture the vagaries of shadows and light and to render them in the instant, using innovative points of view and compositions.

Eckersberg became fascinated by this plein air painting, creating several views of the Eternal City. In the room devoted to Italy, visitors can admire major works from this period, like The Marble Steps Leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome (1814-1816) or View through Three Arches of the Colosseum in Rome (1814-1816), probably Eckersberg’s most famous work. 

The Return to Copenhagen

Sailing from Copenhagen to Charlottenlund, 1824
Oil on canvas, 44.5 × 45 cm
© Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhague

After his time in France and Italy, Eckersberg returned to Copenhagen in 1816 where he remained until his death. He became professor and then director of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and spent the rest of his life painting and teaching. He introduced plein air painting to his students, considering landscape to be a subject worthy of study and illustration.

The drawings and paintings made from 1830 on evoking daily life in Denmark and Eckersberg’s many portraits of the Danish bourgeoisie show his interest in habits and manners, as well as secular scenes. When he returned to Copenhagen he made portraits of several of the generous patrons who had allowed him to study abroad. In these works, the French influence can be seen – especially that of David – in the arrangement of the models, which is impressive but simple, the rigorous composition, clear details and the rendering of the texture and quality of fabric. 

After the portraits, the exhibition offers visitors a glimpse of the intimacy of nude studies, innovative for their realistic character. Over the summer of 1837, Eckersberg made five paintings showing nude models almost in life size. For these paintings that would serve as examples for his pupils, he chose his models carefully, who were complementary for their age, physical type and expression, either concentrated or distant. 

This journey through Eckersberg’s work ends with paintings and drawings illustrating marine scenes. For some of these, Eckersberg adopted artistic processes that were at the time experimental, such as the unusual round format he chose for Sailing from Copenhagen to Charlottenlund (1824). 

The Nathanson Family, 1818
Oil on canvas, 126 × 172.5 cm
© Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhague

In the second section of the exhibition, Eckersberg’s drawings echo his varied interest in everyday scenes, landscapes and seascapes. As a meticulous draughtsman, he often made an initial study in situ, adopting a rigorous composition. However, he usually finished his drawings in the calm of the studio.

A catalogue in French accompanies this exhibition. It includes texts by Kasper Monrad, Anna Schram Vejlby, Neela Struck, Jesper Svenningsen and Jan Gorm Madsen.


C. W. Eckersberg (1783-1853). Artiste danois à Paris, Rome et Copenhague
Paris, Fondation Custodia, 2016
336 pp, colour ill., 31 × 23 cm, hardback
ISBN 978 90 78655 22 0
Price: 40 €

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