The period from 1800 to 1860 has been called the Danish Golden Age because posterity has decided that it is the incarnation of a period of glory in the history of Danish art and culture. Today the Golden Age in our consciousness as a time when the fields were always green, the women were curvy and the country was intact and all in all the art of the period can be seen as a period of glory. This may seem odd when one remembers that the epoch begins at a very stormy point in Danish history with massive instability. Denmark became involved on the French side in the Napoleonic Wars and lost its fleet, went bankrupt and had to relinquish Norway – though it was victorious in the Three Years War 1848-50 and managed to acquire representative government into the bargain.
The theme of Glyptoteket’s exhibition is Danish artists together with the development of Danish art in the years 1800-1860. But the contexts are international as the Danish artists entered into a cultural fellowship which reached far beyond the physical and mental national boundaries. The teaching at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts on the Copenhagen square Kongens Nytorv was, from when it began in 1754, based on studies of works of ancient sculpture and on the shifting European trends in contemporary art. After 1800 lots of travelling and contact with fellow artists from such places as Berlin, Dresden and Rome meant that artistic ideas and influences from outside were naturally blended into works by Jens Juel, C.W. Eckersberg, Christen Købke and the others. Spiritually the age was a melting pot of scientific ideas, extensive theses and national ambitions everywhere in Europe. For these reasons it is possible to say that Golden Age art – an actual Danish phenomenon – emerged with international perspectives.
Glyptoteket’s Golden Age Collection contains major works from the period of, among others, the artists Eckersberg, Købke and J.T. Lundbye. By means of a thematic arrangement the exhibition focuses on ideas, motifs and compositions which mark the Golden Age. This creates a dialogue across time, geography as well as groups and generations of artists. The arrangement also includes painted oil studies, plaster casts and smaller sculptures which provide nuances in the narrative of the Golden Age.
Golden Age artists are sometimes given the blame for resembling each other, likewise the core of the period may seem to be just Eckersberg and his pupils. But these narratives are only one side of the art of the period. And even though the wildest exercises in art may simply have been consigned to private sketchbooks and studies, a number of artists put themselves on the line by venturing into explorations of more untraditional motifs. This is apparent in several of the collection’s paintings and sculptures which bear witness to high technical accomplishments and a very personal style – this includes Lundbye’s Outside a Cowhouse in Vejby, Bendz’s A Smoking Party, Lorenz Frøhlich’s untraditional depiction of a dead rat or Freund’s sculpture of Loki.
The first great dream of the Golden Age artists was about Italy as the place where the enchantments of Antiquity could be awakened to life. It became the noblest duty of the artist to travel down into the ancient world, see it, touch it, inhale it so as to be able to integrate it later into Danish art.
In the earliest works the artist’s representation of Antiquity was based on literary depictions of mythological themes. Later came C.W. Eckersberg’s light-filled paintings of Italy which were painted on the spot. Their wealth of technical detail and the fact that they were painted in the open air were of considerable significance for the direction of the period’s rediscovery of Antiquity. The duty to possess oneself of the ancient world was interpreted differently in the following generations. In the exhibition’s works by Fritz Petzholdt, Christen Købke, Constantin Hansen and Martinus Rørbye the ideals of the past are thus presented as beautiful stage-sets for an edifying journey with plenty of room for sensuality.