The Lean and Optical Dane

The economics of global renown oblige small countries to specialize. Holland has its great painters—Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals—and Denmark its writers: Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen, Isak Dinesen. The notion of a Danish painter worthy of international appreciation taxes our mental budget, and that of a Golden Age of Danish painting seems positively extravagant. Yet there was one, roughly from the 1820s to the 1840s, fitted into the cozy Biedermeier era, when northern Europe, between the Napoleonic storms and the upheavals of 1848, sought domestic peace. Not that Denmark had done very well out of Napoleon; it had seen its Navy defeated by the English in 1801, large portions of Copenhagen destroyed in a British bombardment of 1807, its grain trade and state bank ruined by seven years of subsequent fighting as Napoleon’s ally, and its possession of Norway given over to Sweden by the peace treaty of Kiel in 1814. Times were lively but hard in the chastened little kingdom during the Golden Age. One art critic has suggested that the small physical scale of Danish paintings in the 1820s reflects the reduced life style of the middle classes.

Distinguished by steeples, castles, and coolly classic white houses erected after the great fire of 1795, Copenhagen, with a population of about a hundred thousand, was picturesque, and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, housed in the Charlottenborg Palace, produced, under the aegis of the painter and professor Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, a sudden generation of young painters. Of these, Christen Kobke, a short and staid baker’s son who began to study at the Academy when he was twelve, did not especially stand out. The portraitists Christian Jensen and Willem Marstrand both had reputations higher than Kobke’s; the most famous contemporary Danish artist of all was Bertel Thorvaldsen, a sculptor who lived in Rome. Kobke, who had ten siblings, was a pious self-doubter and, until his wealthy father died in 1843, under no financial pressure to make a splash. He often gave his canvases away as gifts, sold a mere two to the Royal Collection, and was twice rejected for membership in the Academy. In 1848, at the age of thirty-seven, he died, after a decade of family deaths, straitened circumstances, and artistic wane. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century did his reputation begin to revive. Now he is considered the best painter of his age—“The Golden Age” has become “The Age of Kobke”—if not the greatest Danish painter of all time.

Yet he is still barely known outside Denmark. Sanford Schwartz’s Christen Kobke is the first American book about this painter. The most extensive previous consideration in English was to be found in Kasper Monrad’s fine catalog notes for the Kobke items in the 1984 exhibition at the National Gallery in London, Danish Painting: The Golden Age. This fall, a similar exhibit will be coming to the Los Angeles County Museum and then to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the meantime, Schwartz’s elegant, though annoyingly miniaturized,…

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