The History of the SMK
The history of the museum is inextricably bound up with the history of the art collections amassed by Danish monarchs. That is why the story of the museum does not begin with the building in Sølvgade that you are visiting today, but with the diary of the German painter Albrecht Dürer. In 1521 this eminent artist made an entry stating that the king of Denmark, Christian II, had received “the best copies of all my prints.” With this gift the cornerstone of the National Gallery of Denmark was laid down.
Today Dürer’s works form part of the museum’s collection of art, and his gift sparked an interest in art at the Danish court. Subsequent generations of kings kept that interest alive, even if their ardour for art and sense of quality varied somewhat.
Christian IV – an impulsive art patron
Christian IV was a king full of ambitious plans, eagerly building castles and adorning buildings and cities. He built extensively, creating a need for pictures to decorate the many new walls and ceilings, and so decorative elements were commissioned and paintings purchased, often in bulk.
Bitterly, much of Christian IV’s art had to be surrendered to the Swedes as spoils of war in 1658, but nevertheless much survives in Denmark today, some of it at the SMK. The works purchased by the king testify to a monarch whose interest in art was, first and foremost, motivated by impulsive desire. He was no art expert.
The king was particularly enthusiastic about dramatic scenes that offered easily decipherable symbolism and moral lessons, enabling them to move the viewer. This preferences prompted him to refuse when he had the opportunity to make a favourable deal on a very fine collection of paintings executed by the pre-eminent painter of princes at the time, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.
Frederik V – the kings’ collection takes shape
Even though the Danish monarchs began to buy art back in the 16th century, a true art collection was not built until Frederik V ascended to the throne. He bought large quantities of older European paintings, particularly Flemish and Dutch art.
Frederik V himself was not particularly interested in art, but nevertheless chose to send the art dealer Gerhard Morell on trips to the Netherlands with instructions to buy art. When Morell returned from his final journey in 1763 the king’s collection had swelled by almost 200 paintings.
The canny and resourceful Morell succeeded in acquiring a range of famous artworks that are now amongst the museum’s highlight, including Andrea Mantegna’s Christ as the Suffering Redeemer.
The royal collections are opened to the public
In 1827 the precursor of the SMK – The Royal Collection of Paintings – first opened its doors to the general public in the newly-built Picture Gallery at Christiansborg Palace.
In 1849 the royal collections became state property, a result of the general democratic developments in society and the abolition of absolute monarchy. The collections remained at Christiansborg Palace up until the palace fire in 1884.
Danish Golden Age art
The art historian Niels Lauritz Høyen took up the position of curator of the royal collections in 1839. He was man of considerable power and influence; in addition to his work as curator he was also an art critic and a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
Whereas the royal collections primarily consisted of Western European art from approximately 1300 to 1800 with particular emphasis on Dutch, Flemish, Italian, French, and German art, Høyen directed his attention towards Danish art, believing that art was a national concern.
He had a penchant for paintings with a patriotic, National Romantic bent and ensured that the paintings of the so-called Danish Golden Age became part of the collection. The museum’s exceptional collection of works by C. W. Eckersberg and his followers was created thanks to Høyen’s focus on Danish art.
The Christiansborg Palace Fire
On the night between October 3 and 4 1884 the palace fire at Christiansborg burnt the building to the ground. Legend has it that the ageing king Christian IX began rescuing the many paintings. If this anecdote is true it is not unlikely that such royal assistance helped spur on the spectacular evacuation of the many works of art.
Large canvases were quickly, efficiently, and with great precision cut out from their frames, allowing them to be carried – in order of importance – through the narrow corridors in the burning building. The vast majority of the artworks were saved, including the most important ones.
The opening of The National Gallery of Denmark
For a few years the artworks from Christiansborg Palace were essentially homeless, but in 1896 they were housed at the newly built Statens Museum for Kunst in Sølvgade, Copenhagen. The architect Vilhelm Dahlerup (1836-1907) was the man behind the monumental and distinctive museum buildings. He was one of the leading architects of his age and left a substantial imprint on Copenhagen. His other buildings include the Royal Theatre and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.
The museum building met with criticism from the outset. The style was regarded as heavy and old-fashioned. What is more, even then it was not big enough to house the many works of art, which were hung in largely the same manner as at Christiansborg Palace.
In keeping with the salon style of hanging art the paintings were hung closely together from floor to ceiling. Art historical relationships were not necessarily evident in the displays. Rather, audiences were greeted by a barrage of sensory input. The paintings were often arranged in accordance with aesthetic concerns: Large paintings at the top, smaller paintings at the bottom, all presented with a certain degree of decorative and symmetrical order.
Three collections at one museum
Together with the king’s collections of paintings and sculptures – also known as The Royal Collection of Paintings – the museum also became home to the Royal Collection of Graphic Art and the Royal Cast Collection.
The Royal Collection of Graphic Art is one of the oldest collections of graphic art in the world, comprising drawings, watercolours, etchings, woodcuts, lithographs, photographs, and other forms of art on paper. Home to more than 240,000 artworks, the collection spans a wide range of artists from Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Toulouse-Lautrec to Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois.
The Royal Cast Collection was created in the 19th century, at which point the brewer Carl Jacobsen (1824-1941), working together with the art historian Julius Lange (1838-96), acquired many plaster casts of sculptures from the world’s collections and museums.
The concept was to collect cast copies of the greatest masterpieces. The collection also served an educational purpose: It was believed that the plaster casts had an edifying effect on the citizens, teaching them things they ought to know about art history.
Today the collection can be viewed at Vestindisk Pakhus on the harbour front of Copenhagen.
Rebuilding the museum
In 1960s the architect Nils Koppel embarked on a major refurbishment of the museum interior in order to expand the space available. The huge staircase that originally took up the entire lobby had to go. In its place came the large lobby still found at the museum today.
Two atriums in the middle of the museum were covered. These spaces, which are entered from the lobby, are now mainly used for large-scale special exhibitions.
By refurbishing the museum and putting the Royal Cast Collection into storage the space available for exhibiting the collections was almost doubled.
The new house
The year 1998 saw the official opening of the new museum wing designed by Anna Maria Indrio from the architect’s firm C.F. Møllers Tegnestue. The new, modernist building runs parallel to Dahlerup’s original building, opening up the museum towards the Østre Anlæg park in which it is set.
Widely different in terms of architecture, the two buildings are separate and distinct, yet linked by the glass-roofed Sculpture Street. On the first floor they are connected by gangways.
The collection of modern and contemporary art
Over the years the museum's collection of art has grown steadily to the point where it now numbers more than 260,000 works. Many of the museum’s modern works were donated by major art collectors.
For example, the museum’s collection of French art holds a unique position in Denmark and internationally because the engineer Johannes Rump donated his collection of French art to the museum in 1927, including 25 works by Henri Matisse.
Read about the Rump Collection
In 1959 the museum received an extensive bequest of paintings, watercolours, and graphic art from the artist Emil Nolde upon his death. Only the Nolde Foundation in Seebüll owns a more important collection of his art.
Since 1985 the museum’s collection of Danish contemporary art has also been supplemented by international art. Specific criteria apply to the purchase of international art: it must have had an impact on the Danish art scene. Great emphasis is placed on the interplay between Danish and international art when the most recent art is presented at the SMK.
Experience the museum collections today
Today the museum’s vast collection of art can be experienced in the permanent displays of European Art 1300-1800, Danish and Nordic Art 1750-1900, French Art 1900-1930 and Danish and International Art after 1900. Works from the Royal Collection of Graphic Art can be viewed in the Study Room, whereas the Royal Cast Collection can be visited at the Vestindisk Pakhus, a former warehouse on the harbour front in Copenhagen.
Want to know more?
Britta Tøndborg, From Kunstkammer to art museum: Exhibiting and cataloguing art in the royal collections in Copenhagen, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ph.D. thesis. Courtauld Institute of Art & Statens Museum for Kunst, 2004.
Peter Hertz, Den Kongelige Malerisamlings tilblivelse, Kunstmuseets Aarsskrift. VIII-X. Copenhagen, 1924, pp. 358-390.
Villads Villadsen, Statens Museum for Kunst 1827-1952, Statens Museum for Kunst & Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1998.