Bloch in brief
- Carl Bloch was born in 1834 and grew up in Copenhagen
- At the Art Academy, Bloch had Wilhelm Marstrand as a teacher. He received inspiration from Marstrand’s narrative style of painting
- In his painting, Bloch put descriptions of folklore and mythology before efforts to capture the viewer’s attention
- During a long sojourn in Rome in the 1860s, he cemented his status as the new Danish star by painting large canvases, including Samson and the Philistines
- Bloch married Alma Trepka in Rome in 1868
- Bloch’s monumental painting Prometheus Unbound (1864) caused one of the biggest sensations in Danish art history
- At the request of brewer J. C. Jacobsen, Carl Bloch painted a series of 23 scenes from the life of Christ for the chapel prayer room at Frederiksborg Castle
- In the last years of his life, Bloch, a self-taught graphic artist who used Rembrandt as his model, created a series of 78 etchings
Carl Bloch was born in 1834, and grew up in the home of a merchant in central Copenhagen. According to biographer Rikard Magnussen, Bloch wanted to be an artist from an early age. Yet, he met resistance from his family, who had a different career path in mind for him. Bloch disregarded their opposition and enrolled in the Copenhagen Academy’s evening classes, advancing in the academic system from there.
In the March 9, 1890, issue of the “Illustrated Journal,” Anton Nielsen provides insight into the young Carl Bloch’s thoughts on his artistic identity. Nielsen recalled, in this publication, his meeting with Bloch in the summer of 1853. “He often said:
“Art is the most noble profession in the world, but is it for me?” I got the history of his childhood and youth to date. He had not been performing particularly well in school. He did not mention his failure on the midshipman’s exam; the wound might have been too fresh. He said that his father had only recently allowed him to become a painter. But what if he is not suited for it? It was a terrible idea!”
Carl Bloch debuted at the 1853 Charlottenborg exhibition and received the Academy’s silver medal. His early works from the 1850s are first and foremost depictions of folk life taken from around Denmark, such as the painting Fishing Families Awaiting their Husbands’ Homecoming as a Storm Breaks. From the West Coast of Jutland (1858, The Hirschsprung Collection)
In Marstrand’s Footsteps
At Copenhagen’s Art Academy, Carl Bloch was taught by painter Wilhelm Marstrand. Marstrand was a consummate storyteller. For example, he painted scenes of everyday life in Copenhagen, and scenes of street life when he travelled to Rome. He also depicted theatrical performances with a wealth of detail and character types. One can say that Carl Bloch builds on his instructor’s work in many ways and tests the limits of narrative painting. In one case, Bloch paints a scene of an eatery in Rome as a direct counterpart to a picture by Marstrand.
After Marstrand’s death in 1873, Bloch was responsible for completing the decoration of the University of Copenhagen’s Celebration Hall.
Both Marstrand and Carl Bloch were very popular in their time. Subsequently, however, their art has been labelled as a bit too colourful and sentimental. Speaking directly to the senses, their narrative style is their chief strength and, at the same time, it may overwhelm the contemporary viewer’s vision.
On closer inspection, Bloch emerges as a distinct and contradictory artist. His work demands that we bypass the colourful surface and make more profound interpretations of it.
The Rising Star
Two Roman sojourns from 1859-1861 and 1863-1865 boosted Bloch’s career as an artist. He focused on large scale works, cementing his position as a “rising star in the field” with historical paintings depicting mythological and religious subject matter. The paintings were received warmly in his native land, where art on a grand scale was especially desired. The painting Samson with the Philistines was exhibited at Charlottenborg in 1863 and purchased immediately by the Royal Picture Gallery – today the National Gallery of Art. Bloch’s important role in the “rebirth of history painting” has been described by art historian Peter Nørgaard Larsen in several contexts.
Bloch worked in his studio on Vicolo del Basilico in Rome. He inspired other artists to try their hand at history painting. Slightly younger painter Louis Abelin Schou tells of his inspiration from Bloch: “As a result of observing Bloch at work, I have not been able to resist taking on large projects, especially as he actively encourages me to do it” (letter from L. A. Schou to his mother, November 1864 – The Royal Library). Schou is later categorized as a “European” in Danish painting due in part to his choice of subject matter.
“Then came Prometheus…”
In 1864, King George I of Greece (born Prince William of Denmark) commissioned a large picture from Bloch. The painting was to hang at the Royal Palace in Athens. It became the monumental work Prometheus Unbound, which measured 398 x 294 cm, and depicted one of the myths of Prometheus. Bloch presents the moment when Prometheus broke the shackles after Herakles freed him from the eagle.
The painting was sent to Copenhagen and exhibited at Charlottenborg in 1865. It was a major attraction and people lined up all the way from Kongens Nytorv to experience it.
Although created in a completely different context, the picture rose to national prominence after the Battle of Dybbøl in 1864 because it portrayed defeat and conveyed a desire for recovery. The much-publicized image later disappeared mysteriously and its location is currently unknown.
The success of Bloch’s picture of Prometheus is evidenced in a passage excerpted from a long poem written by H. C. Andersen as an homage to the artist:
“Then came Prometheus. The snow melted away from the crowd’s eyes before the majestic picture! How happy I am with the whole of Copenhagen!”
In May 1868, Carl Bloch married Alma Trepka in Rome, where the couple met and became engaged. They had 8 children together.
Alma often appears as a model in Bloch’s pictures. In his memoirs, the author Georg Brandes mentions her as follows:
“Alma Trepka was queenly; her movements deliberate, her disposition calm. Carl Bloch’s clients could request a Mary-figure modelled after her face, even a Christ-figure without changing the oval lines of her face significantly…”
quoted from Rikard Magnussen's Carl Bloch. Copenhagen 1931, p. 226
Street life, fish, and disorder
Bloch keeps all of our senses stimulated when he depicts life in the streets and in domestic spaces. Paintings of fishermen’s wives, monks with toothache, and other special characters represent a large portion of Bloch’s work. He created genre scenes and monumental history paintings simultaneously.
Bloch’s paintings of Roman and Copenhagen subjects have been called a “psychological supplement” because his characters exhibit greater psychological depth than in scenes that are strictly anecdotal and narrative.
As viewers, we behold both seafood and odd expressions in our line of sight. We cannot simply enjoy the pictures for pleasure. They elicit a reaction, just as the lobster tapping on the window in the painting of a kitchen prompts the boys’ shock. Ostensibly, Bloch’s goal is to provoke sensation and movement in the viewer, who also peers into the kitchen.
In several articles, art historian Peter Nørgaard Larsen highlights what he calls “meat aversion” in Bloch’s works: “Bloch presents the unappetizing and the destructive through numerous realistic details. This is particularly evident in a series of bizarre pictures of fishwives, as in A Fishwife (1875).”
At one point, Carl Bloch occupied a studio on Bredgade in Copenhagen. He was photographed at his easel here in 1873 by Vilhelm Tillge.
In the photograph, you see Carl Bloch at work on The Denial of Peter, which is one of the 23 paintings with scenes from the life of Jesus painted for Christian IV’s prayer chamber at Frederiksborg Castle Chapel. The brewer J. C. Jacobsen commissioned the series in 1864, and Bloch completed it over a period of 14 years. The prayer chamber is a space in the church, where Bloch’s paintings line the walls. The series is considered Bloch’s magnum opus. Bloch emphasized his religious pictures as his most important works. This group also includes altarpieces in other churches.
In the photograph, a nude male model stands on a podium behind Bloch. Naturally, one believes him to be a model for one of the characters in the painting. However, the identity of the character is a bit of a mystery – maybe he is posing for the figure of Peter? The photograph appears to be a carefully arranged composition designed to give an overall impression of the painter at work. All components of the photograph are arranged in the studio; hence the pose of the live model is not an exact match with those we see in the painting on the easel.
Nevertheless, the photograph provides an interesting insight into Carl Bloch’s work and it points to the connection between idealized and realistic studies of the body. The relationship between ideal and real is an important part of his work, especially his carefully composed religious images.
The Last Chapter
Carl Bloch spent the last years of his life living as a recognized artist in Copenhagen and North Zealand at Ellekilde. At the Exposition Universelle of 1878, he received a medal for his work Christian II Imprisoned at Sønderborg Castle, and he was also awarded a distinction in the Legion of Honour.
Bloch worked as a professor and deputy director at the Art Academy in Copenhagen during the 1880s. At this phase in his life, Bloch produced 78 etchings, which art historian Peter Michael Hornung described as follows:
“If Bloch’s paintings reflect his position in society…the selection of subject matter in his graphic work reveals a very different character of privacy and quietude. The etchings are downright desolate at times and marked by a much quieter and introspective mood than his paintings.”
Carl Bloch died of cancer in Copenhagen in 1890. He is buried in Holmens Cemetery in Østerbro.
Bloch in his own words
”I am frequently tired of the world and I wish I was dead. However, if I see it at its worst, it often improves. It seems to me that I have so much to thank God for, and it would of course be foolish to demand that you would be happy in this life, (…), no, there are grey skies and rain will splash you. You have to rinse off before you are received by God.”
Letter to Frederik Bøgh, July 1866.
“The preparatory sketch and the large finished painting – between these two points lie my happiness and my growing love.”
From Frederik Bøgh’s surviving papers, published by Nicolaj Bøgh in Aaret Rundt II, 1890.
Julius Lange: ”Historiske billeder af Carl Bloch”, in Julius Lange Nutids-Kunst Skildringer og Karakteristiker, København 1873
Julius Lange: ”Udsigt over Kunstens Historie i Danmark” (1895), in Julius Lange: Udvalgte Skrifter I , København 1900-1903
J. R. Thiele: Beskrivende fortegnelse over Carl Blochs 78 raderinger. Th. Linds Efterfølger, København 1898
Emil Hannover ”Europæerne” in Kunstens Historie i Danmark, redigeret af Karl Madsen, 1901-1907, p. 311-315.
Sigurd Müller: Carl Blochs raderinger. Th. Linds Eftf. Hans Frandsen, 1916
Arbejder af maleren Carl Bloch. Kunstforeningen, 1921
Rikard Magnussen Carl Bloch 1834-1890. København 1931
V. Jastrau: Carl Bloch : 60 malerier, tegninger og raderinger. Gad, 1954. (Smaa Kunstbøger, 9)
Thorkild Schiøler: En sørgelig historie, in Sfinx. - Årg. 5, nr. 4 (1982). - p. 140-143 : ill.
Peter Michael Hornung: ”Fra græske guder til danske helte” in: Ny dansk kunsthistorie, bind 4 Realismen. København 1993
Erik Mortensen: Kunstkritikkens og Kunstopfattelsens Historie i Danmark, bind 1 ”Nationen til Gavn”. København 1990
Peter Nørgaard Larsen: Åndens transcendens og kødets immanens – dansk figurmaleri ca. 1850-1880 i genre- og mentalitetshistorisk perspektiv. København 1997
Peter Nørgaard Larsen: ”Carl Bloch og kødets ulyst”, i Humaniora. - Årg. 14, nr. 1 (1999). - p. 6-9 : ill
Peter Nørgaard Larsen:”A Staged History of Denmark”, inStatens Museum for Kunst Journal vol. 3 1999 p.42-69
Peter Nørgaard Larsen: ”Med ryggen mod fremtiden – Billedkunst i anden halvdel af 1800-tallet”, in Kunstakademiet 1754-2004, bind 1. København 2004
Jens Toft: ”Carl Bloch – en Sildefødning”, in: Periskop – forum for kunsthistorisk debat nr. 12, København 2006