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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, album will serve as a primer and appetizer.

Schwartz brings to art criticism a broad knowledge and a hungry but patient sensibility. One assumes, from his reference to sources in Danish, that he knows the language or mastered it for this critical occasion. He is one of a flock of youngish American critics to show the influence of Pauline Kael, echoing the passionate film reviewer’s gangling, slangy, heavily personalized, go-for-all-of-it style. “Kobke,” Schwartz tells us, “was still on his anti-Eckersberg roll—still trying to shuck his first teacher.” Kobke’s father was “a big-time baker,” and the hyphenated adjectives don’t stop there. Kobke’s contemporaries produce “sketch-like, of-the-moment landscapes,” Wilhelm Bendz’s “dark-yet-streaky pictures seem far afield from the staid Eckersberg,” and one of Kobke’s paintings presents “an extraordinary sense of see-throughness.”

Schwartz rather revels in awkward phrasing: “In tone, Kobke’s work runs the range from being somewhat blank to being youthfully—charmingly—trustful to conveying a jet of pure, frank, penetrating awareness.” Conveying his own jet of awareness, Schwartz beclouds simple meanings with an ingenuous wordiness: “His art is one of the products of the social and personal liberties of the era after Napoleon, but it should be said that Kobke wasn’t in revolt from another way of being an artist.” As the critic ponders the canvases, his subtle sensations successfully defy expression:

The pictures might present the state of someone who is mildly ravaged.

When he sets a green wagon near a red fence, for instance, the surrounding colors are so balanced that the red and the green spring out on their own.

There is a melancholy mood to Kobke’s pictures, but it arrives from between the cracks.

Not the cracks, presumably, of the aging paint. The vivid, chatty viewing persona at times turns petulant: of Kobke’s later, grander, duller works, Schwartz complains, “We’re not lured into thinking about how he made these pictures,” and of Kobke’s friend and student, Johan Lundbye, we are amused to read, “A viewer quits Lundbye’s company with the thought that this man was too talented and too smart to have made his protagonist a distant cow.”

Yet, on the not totally satisfactory basis of the color reproductions in this book, one can only agree with Schwartz’s basic appreciation of his subject. “Erectness, precision, and gentleness” excellently sums up Kobke’s virtues. Gentleness isn’t commonly listed as a virtue in visual art, but in the surpassingly beautiful canvas The Landscape Painter F. Sodring, 1832 (see next page), the quality characterizes both the subject’s expression and the way in which Kobke’s painterly attention envelops and modulates every surface, every texture, from the pencil drawings pinned to the gray-paneled wall to Sodring’s pink-tinged right thumb, from the cushion strings and folded camp stool along the lower edge to the tilted oval mirror bisected by the upper edge. The little still life of objects on the table by Sodring’s elbow is marked by the tonal hot spot of the quietly colored portrait, a rectangular red case like a distillation of the pink planes that compose the young painter’s faintly quizzical, pale-browed face—a face which is treated, like faces in Vermeer and Manet, dispassionately, as one among a number of objects defined by color and light. An earlier portrait of another colleague, Marstrand at the Easel in Eckersberg’s Studio (1829), is relatively loaded with chiaroscuro and dramatic atmosphere; it is the quiet, emotionless tone of Kobke’s mature treatment that enables his somewhat abstract color to strike its balances and to manifest what Schwartz calls “freshly felt formal tension.”

As Schwartz says, “Kobke’s endeavor is remarkably lean and optical, and it’s without sentiment.” Such an endeavor appeals to the twentieth century, where the Victorians would be bored and possibly alarmed by it; their horror vacui has been replaced by our own horror of clutter. Kobke worked on the edge of emptiness. His instinct was to work small, beginning with drawings of a meticulous precision, or with oil sketches brushed onto pieces of paper that fit into the lid of his portable paintbox. His genius was an intimate one, nurtured by Danish coziness and Nordic reserve. Many of his paintings, including some detailed landscapes, are less than a foot square.

His several paintings of Frederiksborg Castle—one of the biggest things in Denmark—are among his largest, but the most arresting of them are the ones that contain the least amount of castle, the two rooftop views painted in 1834–1835. Brick chimneys and ornate copper turrets loom before a far brown landscape and an empty blue-green sky. The canvases, measuring over five by five feet, were painted to share the walls of his parents’ large new dining room with two grisaille paintings by Kobke of circular plaster reliefs by the sculptor Thorvaldsen, Night and Day. The rooftops seem raked by a setting or rising sun, and Schwartz, taking as a sign the stork on one chimney, bundles the goddesses and the shifting roof perspectives into a single theme: “Viscerally, at least, the four pictures together become a sort of meditation on the passage of time, on being brought into the world and being taken out of it.” What makes the roof views appealing now, and Kobke’s fuller views of the castle much less so, is their fragmentary and minimal content; as in an unpopulated plaza by de Chirico, an eerie absence shouts out. In the Dane’s later paintings of, say, a cliff in Capri (Marina Grande, Capri, 1839–1840) or The Forum: Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance (1841) the absence is, as it were, missing, with nothing to take its place but a conventional grandeur, heavy on antique ochre.

The grandeur in his best landscapes is not imported from ancient Rome but found in the modest country around Copenhagen, where houses and people are never out of sight. In two masterly paintings from 1838, both called View from the Embankment of Lake Sortedam, human figures are silhouetted on lakeside docks, clustered at the base of a central vertical—a sailwrapped mast in one, a flagpole in the other. The mood is benevolent, yet tinged by silence, desolation, and poignance. In the smaller, though more stunning, of the views, looking toward Osterbro, an ominous evening shadow darkens the group, in their playful assortment of hats, as they make things tight at their end of their sail.

The melancholy that flits through Andersen’s fables and pursues Kierkegaard through his whirlwind of impersonation and polemic haunts the innocent, geometrically taut world of Kobke. The absence one feels, perhaps, is that of the madonnas and crucified Christs, gods and goddesses and nymphs and satyrs and idealized historical figures for whom landscape hitherto has been merely background. Brought to the foreground, will not nature look blank and empty? Kobke’s paintings are full of light but it is generally a dry, less than refulgent light; thready little white lines—almost his signature—appear on the edges of buildings and collars and wands of grass. His trees, with their blanched leaves and twigs, have a spectral pallor. His exquisite drawing emphasizes line over mass, so that some of his portrait heads quite lack a sense of weight, of existing in the round.

Others of his portraits are superb, with startling psychological presence. His portrait of Christian Petersen (1833) uses the same pink, planear tones as the portrait of Sodring a year earlier, but the face is more troubled and complex, without distracting us entirely from the equable rendering of the flowered brown vest, the lush velvet coat collar, and the splendidly fitted and rendered shirt and collar. The alert, searching, and even agonized face of Lauritz Lyngbye, painted the same year, takes all the focus, however; Schwartz rates it at the Romantic end of Kobke’s range, heated and pent-up where the portrait of Sodring is cool and mellow:

It’s hard to recall other paintings of the Romantic period, except Géricault’s images of soldiers in moments of doubt and confusion, that convey so freshly the Romantic ache, the mixture of contrary yearnings.

Between these extremes lies a remarkable variety of Danish visages—the lumpy, flatly colored Ida Thiele (1832), one of the best portraits of an infant ever painted; An Old Sailor and An Old Farmer Woman (both 1832), full of the pained dignity of age; Male Model (1833), an unblinking, antiheroic, yet magnificent male nude; the superbly rounded and realized pencil sketches Professor F. C. Sibbern (1833) and Young Girl (undated); chalky portraits of his rather crafty-looking parents (1835); the swarthy, hypnotically gazing Study for the Portrait of Prefect J. A. Graah (1837–1838); and the dashing Portrait of a Naval Officer (1834), a companion in picture-making to the portrait of Sodring, with the same dusky-green background and air of urbane good humor.

From portrait to portrait, Kobke’s intentions seem to fluctuate. Some suggest a less crusty Rembrandt, others a less smoothly modeled Ingres. His mentor Eckersberg’s travels had included a year of study in Paris with David, and he had brought back to Denmark a French neoclassicism whose rigor and thinness were, to Kobke, both a release and a confinement.

Eckersberg preached, not quite paradoxically, perspectival construction and life studies. “Draw from nature, no matter what it is,” he exhorted. An animated oil sketch of riverside grasses by Kobke was included, eleven years ago, in the Museum of Modern Art show Before Photography; introducing the catalog, Peter Galassi pointed out that the fifteenth-century pictorial invention of linear perspective opened the way not only for such marvels of balanced architectural clarity as della Francesca’s and Uccello’s crystalline panoramas but for the overlappings, fragmentariness, and surprises in apparent size found in Dutch painters like de Witte and Saenredam and later, in Degas. Kobke’s rooftops are an impressive instance of what might be called the proto-photographic eye, which includes and excludes not according to an idealistic hierarchy of significance but in mute, enigmatic acceptance of what falls within the viewer’s frame.

Eckersberg’s proposed turn from the exhausted pomp of historical and mythological tableaux to plein air sketches in the Copenhagen suburbs was undoubtedly healthy, and in the forward direction of Impressionism. But Danish critics had their doubts: one wrote of Kobke.

This artist has distinguished himself by conscientious truth and simplicity, but unfortunately also by a conspicuous indifference to his choice of subjects. The latter is highly regrettable, inasmuch as nature possesses much that is trivial and common that cannot serve as a worthy object for art.

The issue is metaphysical: If a thing exists in nature, how can it be trivial, and how can it not be, if it is not real? Does art involve the rendering of the actual, or the reordering of it? Is something extra, beyond skillful human imitation, needed to make nature into art? The appreciative Schwartz comes up against these questions in considering two ambitious, hard-worked canvases that Kobke, seeking a wider public, pitched in a grander mode: View Outside the North Gate of the Citadel (1834) and Osterbro in Morning Light (1836). The former, Schwartz concludes, “teeters between greatness and emptiness” and ends with “a heart that is too small for the body it’s placed in”; the latter, similarly, “seems undernourished. It has more sweat and preparation than innards.”

Surviving letters from Kobke describe the sweat and preparation, and the obscure depths of struggle from which he prays for God’s assistance. His reputation scarcely needs the two big works. Less effortfully, he achieved a dozen or so masterpieces that give him his niche in global renown. Still, one would like to test Schwartz’s negative conclusions about the two ambitious pictures. Is there some subtle poetry, some precious grace of rendering, the critic has missed? But he has had the advantage of seeing the paintings themselves, where they hang in Copenhagen, and, infuriatingly, the color reproductions that Timken Publishers have given the pictures in question are too small to judge, as are a number of others. Repeatedly, I had to take a magnifying glass to the color plates. With an opportunity to reproduce many of the smaller paintings near their actual size, the designers have chosen to make them miniatures, with lavish margins. True, a few bled pages do amplify the details so that Kobke’s stabbingly deft, increasingly “blocky, runny, halting” brushwork can be studied, but such pages are three in number. On the rest, for whatever reasons of cost or style, this volume, meant to enlarge Christen Kobke’s reputation, presents him as almost too small to see.

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