Christen Købke is one of the pre-eminent Danish artists of the Golden Age, and his painting contains all the beauty and harmony most people associate with this period. But the reality was not always idyllic, and the most recent interpretation of the painting is less romantic than you may expect.
SMK’s ten highlights quite naturally include one of Christen Købke’s beautiful landscapes, purchased by the museum directly from the artist in 1839. Naturally, because if you are looking for something that has defined Danish identity and helped create the story of Denmark, the artists of the Danish Golden Age, especially Christen Købke, come right at the top of the list.
‘It’s a really beautiful and well-composed picture. As spectator, you can step into it without being disturbed, and if you’re visiting SMK to find highlights of Danish art, culture, identity and history, then this is certainly a must-see. It is also an image of Denmark that we still see ourselves reflected in, and one to which we keep coming back, driven by nostalgia and sentimentality,’ says chief curator and senior researcher Peter Nørgaard Larsen.
SMK owns the world’s largest collection of Danish Golden Age art, featuring major masterpieces by famous and less well-known artists from C. W. Eckersberg, Wilhelm Bendz and J. Th. Lundbye to Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, Knud Kyhn and many more.
SMK owns sixty-one paintings by Købke, a large proportion of his total production of approximately 200. The scene shown in this highlight came from Christen Købke’s own backyard at Dosseringen in Copenhagen. Many of his paintings are set in this area, and in A View of Lake Sortedam from Dosseringen Looking towards the Suburb Nørrebro outside Copenhagen, 1838, he simply stepped outside his garden gate.
Even though he tends to work within his own local community, he successfully evokes narratives of wider significance – as if the little boat, for example, was heading out on a big journey. But Christen Købke also establishes a sense of intimacy, inviting us into the painting. In this case, he does so by painting the vegetation in a very realistic manner.
Not a romantic sunset
And then there is the water with the reddish colour that gives the scene a sunset feel. At least, that is how the painting was interpreted until very recently. While scholars knew that the preliminary sketches for the picture, which were probably done during mid-day, show the water as blue, the general consensus was that the artist changed his mind when creating the actual painting, evoking a romantic evening mood instead. However, this is not the case.
‘It turns out that the scene did not look like this initially. Our conservators have discovered that the water was painted using Prussian blue, a pigment which can turn red over time,’ says Peter Nørgaard Larsen.
Another aspect that has recently come under renewed scrutiny is whether the small rowing boat may in fact be coming in rather going out. The picture has previously been interpreted as a farewell scene, but seen in the new daylight and the way the oars are positioned in the water, the question is no longer as clear-cut, making the painting less romantic than previously assumed.
The definition of Danishness
Irrespective of the colour of the water and the sky, we are still left with a painting that helps define the Golden Age and our ideas about Danishness. The flag is flown – not just for the sake of the composition, but also to illustrate how Christen Købke was interested in national matters and national identity.
‘The image of Denmark presented here still thrives today and has contributed to building a particular outlook and understanding of Danish history which could probably do with being shaken up a bit. The realities of Copenhagen around this time were not all about idyllic, picturesque harmony. It was filthy and stank of shit. You don’t feel that here. It would be a mistake to think that everything was better back then. It was a time of dire financial straits for Denmark, a time of state bankruptcy, great poverty and major challenges,’ says Peter Nørgaard Larsen.
It is clearly necessary to take a critical approach to any image you are presented with: after all, they represent the artist’s subjective experience and are just one window on the world.
‘That holds true of all images. Including those on TV. There’s this naïve notion about older art that it shows the world as it was. Art is always an edited image of reality. The widespread analogy is that art is like looking out of a window. And perhaps things did look like this on a good day.’