Eckersberg in brief
- Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was born in 1783 and grew up in southern Jutland
- Eckersberg wished to become a history painter and in 1803 he went to Copenhagen where he was educated at the Art Academy
- During the period 1810 - 1816, Eckersberg furthered his education in Paris and in Rome where he developed new ways of looking at history painting and painting en plein air
- After returning home to Denmark, Eckersberg was made professor at the Academy, an office he held till his death in 1853. In Danish art history, this period is referred to as the Eckersberg School, the Copenhagen School and the Golden Age.
- Privately, Eckersberg was married three times and had 11 children in all
- Thoroughness is a keyword in understanding Eckersberg. He kept meticulous diaries and worked thoroughly on perspective in his works
Childhood in Southern Jutland
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was born in 1783 in Slesvig, more specifically in the small village of Blåkrog. Later on, the family moved to Blans close to the fjord near Als. Towards the end of his life, Eckersberg described his childhood environment in detail in memoirs that were never finished:
“My father,..., always shared any natural phenomena he came across with me, ..., this made a great impression on me and when it was over, I maintained a clear vision of the event and wished to be able to repeat it again or retain it somehow.”
The father had several trades, among them: carpenter, interior painter and ship-builder. He built a boat and took Eckersberg sailing in it, an experience which, just as the natural surroundings he grew up in, had a great impact on the mind of the impressionable Eckersberg.
When he was 14, Eckersberg became an apprentice with the local house painter Jes Jessen in Åbenrå and later on finished his apprenticeship with another house painter named Jessen in Flensburg. Eckersberg’s ambitions went beyond house painting and he succeeded in financing a further education as an artist in Copenhagen.
The lustful and the academic
Eckersberg wanted to become a history painter and in 1803 he headed to Copenhagen, where he became a pupil of the painter Abildgaard at the Art Academy.
The concept of a history painter encompasses figure compositions with mythological, religious and historical motifs.
History painting was at the time the most significant of the subjects taught at the Academy. To get to the top of this hierarchy you had to first finish the freehand drawing course, the plaster course, where you sketched from statues and last the model course where your sketched live male models.
To make money to finance his studies, Eckersberg sketched vistas of Copenhagen, moralising depictions of street life and drawings for other artists’ copperplate engravings. In art literature, this sideline is often described as in contrast with the learned academic practice and described as popular and “lustful”.
However, there doesn’t seem to be any discrepancy between these two practices in the young artist’s mind. Eckersberg knew how to behave in both worlds and was as engaged in visualising the everyday and the lustful around him as he was in the more abstract and mythological subjects.
Eckersberg succeeded in advancing and winning medals in the academic system and with help from private benefactors, while waiting for the Academy’s travel grant to come through, he went to Paris in 1810 to further his studies with one of the leading history painters of the time, Jacques-Louis David (1745-1825).
Self-portrait from 1811(?)
On this self-portrait we see a picture of the younger Eckersberg dressed in the typical artist attire of the day. The atmosphere in the picture is reminiscent of the atmosphere of the older artist Thorvaldsen’s oval self-portrait, made when he was around 24. Clad in the typical bohème clothing of the time and with a certain self-confidence, especially in Thorvaldsen.
In their book C.W. Eckersberg - the father of Danish painting, the two art historians Kasper Monrad and Peter Michael Hornung discuss the date of this self-portrait. An old inscription at the back of the picture says 1803, the period when Eckersberg studied in Copenhagen, but his earlier biographer Emil Hannover date the picture to Eckersberg’s time in Paris in 1811. Hannover builds his dating on notes from Eckersberg’s diary in which he, on August 17th in 1811, notes the expense for new clothes, among others: Fine shirts, waistcoat, scarves and short taffeta trousers. Hannover concludes that that is exactly what Eckersberg is wearing in the picture.
Young in Paris
From the autumn of 1810, Eckersberg spent three years in Paris where he developed his history painting, supported financially by “honorable patrons”, as he expressed it himself. Eckersberg’s life is well documented in his matter-of-fact diaries written in the years from 1810 and until his death in 1853. He started his diary keeping when he left Copenhagen for Paris.
The diaries were latest published in a complete, annotated version by Villads Villadsen in 2009. In these diaries we can read mostly about the weather, Eckersberg’s expenses, mundane events, family life and his work as a teacher at the Academy. He doesn’t write much of his thoughts and his art.
In Paris, Eckersberg was taught for over a year by the esteemed French painter and neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David. In David’s studio paintings were based on live models and they often worked in daylight, whereas in Copenhagen they mostly worked in artificial light. The daylight’s influence on the study of the model revolutionised Eckersberg’s work and his model paintings changed radically during this period.
The early works from the Academy, relating to Abildgaard’s riotous figures inspired by antiquity, were replaced by a different kind of classic figures with a greater degree of close-up study of the models’ skin, body build and a more strict and neoclassicist composition and depiction of environment, completely in the school of David.
About the work in David’s studio, Eckersberg wrote in 1811 to his friend, the engraver J.F. Clemens:
“... one paints after nature and he has the loveliest and fairest models in his studio; You have one just like Hercules, another like a gladiator a third just as a young Bacchus or Antinous and three others, new ones every week and furthermore he gives advice on composition, so that I have been completely happy and satisfied since the start and wish only to stay much longer...”.
From 1812 - 1816 Eckersberg worked on his first large-scale work:The Israelites after the Crossing of the Red Sea. The painting was commissioned by Mendel Levin Nathanson, who became Eckersberg’s patron during the years after Paris and Rome. The work is now part of SMK’s collections.
Eckersberg was married three times and had 11 children in total, whereof some died in infancy. His first wife was Christine Rebekka Hyssing, who gave birth to the son Erling, born in 1808. The couple was married immediately before Eckersberg went to Paris in 1810. While Eckersberg was away, Christine was convicted of petty theft and Eckersberg arranged a divorce, negotiated by his friends in his absence.
We don’t know this story from Christine Hyssing’s point of view and in the early literature about Eckersberg, she’s portrayed unfavourably, as with the art historian Emil Hannover, who describes her in a biased and condescending fashion: “Eckersberg took up with a girl of dubious reputation... That he had genuine feelings for this girl, whose name was Christine Rebekka Hyssing, is beyond doubt, there are many testimonies to that. But that she wasn’t worthy of him is not only known from her later actions,..., but also from the way she held his artistic imagination prisoner. He has painted a lovely little portrait of her: in her large eyes, his own passion for her is reflected.”
The marriage with Christine Hyssing was dissolved in 1816 and a year later Eckersberg got married to Julie Juel, daughter of the painter Jens Juel. They lived together at Charlottenborg. In 1827, Julie died and Eckersberg married her sister Sanne the following year. Sanne died in 1840 and for the remainder of his life, Eckersberg lived as a widower.
In Rome with field chair and easel
In 1812, Eckersberg received the Academy’s three-year travel grant and the following year left Paris for Rome.
Great expectations accompanied Eckersberg when he left for Rome. In the words of art historian Emil Hannover, the Academy anticipated that Eckersberg in Italy would become painting’s answer to Thorvaldsen. Prince Christian VIII, who had approved of the grant for Eckersberg, wrote to Thorvaldsen and asked him to guide Eckersberg “in the right direction”: “Italy should make this young man a pride to his mother country and you will lead him in the right direction in art’s true homeland.” It was not up to Eckersberg alone, there was a lot to live up to and several pairs of eyes rested on him.
In Rome, Eckersberg lived in the same house as Thorvaldsen, who became one of his benefactors and artistic mentors.
The house was on Via Sistina and was called Casa Buti, there’s a plaque on it still.
In 1814, Eckersberg painted the portrait of Thorvaldsen, which today is very famous, and sent it home to the Academy in 1815 as a gift and a sample of his work. Thorvaldsen acquired quite a few of Eckersberg’s paintings, which can be seen today at Thorvaldsen’s Museum’s collection of paintings.
The years in Rome were very stimulating for Eckersberg, who was there able to make good use of his ability to register his surroundings by means of canvas and paper. In Rome, Eckersberg painted en plein air, sat on his chair in front of his easel with the motifs in front of him. These were his private pictures which he showed his students at home and which became trend-setting in Danish art for some time.
Several of these Roman vistas are among the works for which Eckersberg has won most praise, primarily because of the incredible attention to detail and the convincing compositions, secondly, because, in the Golden Age, these were valued more than his other works. That these paintings are more “true” than others is a thesis that runs through Danish art history. Newer research has shown that the prospects, upon closer inspection, are manipulated rather than one-to-one objective registrations. That Eckersberg used the optimal angles and perspectives in his paintings has not diminished his reputation, on the contrary, it has added to the perception of his superiority in composition.
Back to Copenhagen
A few years after coming back to Copenhagen, Eckersberg moved into Charlottenborg with his family after having been appointed professor at the Royal Academy’s model school. Eckersberg held this office, with professor J.L. Lund as a close colleague, up until his death in 1853, and his teachings at the Academy remain legendary in Danish art history, where this particular period is named the Golden Age or the Copenhagen School. He himself has been named “The Father of Danish Painting”, as was his teacher Abildgaard.
In their monograph on Eckersberg, the art historians Peter Michael Hornung and Kasper Monrad provide an insight into the situation at the Academy: “The teaching methods had remained unchanged since the time when Eckersberg himself was a student, and he was thus made responsible for an antiquated education. Still, the students could only sketch after models, not paint, and it still took place in artificial lightning in the evenings... As a compensation for the lack of renewal, Eckersberg introduced private tuition in the disciplines he found were neglected in the official education... Quite quickly, it became evident that Eckersberg had a unique talent for conveying his artistic ideas”.
In the artist’s home
From the artist’s own diaries and from his daughter Julie’s book “Julie Eckersberg’s notes on her father C.W. Eckersberg” we get a glimpse of the daily life on Charlottenborg. Morning and evening he worked and taught and in his spare time, Eckersberg went on long walks around Copenhagen.
Eckersberg played the violin, and his family all liked music and dance. In 1835, Eckersberg’s students gifted him a piano, which can be seen in the living room on the son Jens and the daughter Julie’s sketch of the floor plan of their home. Eckersberg taught his students in his own studio and in the so-called “yellow room”.
Julie Eckersberg reminisces:
“On a low cupboard in the corner was a large, flat glass plate, upon which Father used to grate his paints with a big porphyry muller, bought in Paris. This was a time-consuming and dull task for him, but for his children a great joy to watch. To see the paint get softer and more fluid as the mulling went on and then, finally, being poured into little jars, the loveliest colours imaginable, it was unforgettable!”
The Naked Golden Age
The Naked Golden Age was the name of an exhibition at The Hirschsprung Collection in 1994, which provided an insight into Eckersberg’s model school and some analyses of his studies of nudes. Eckersberg’s model school is legendary in Danish art history and it is often mentioned in his favour that he introduced the study of the female nude next to the male nude as a kind of equality in the academic system.
On January 4th, 1833, Eckersberg makes the following note in his diary about the event: “Tonight, we had a female model for the first time to sketch breasts, shoulders and arms.”
Eckersberg’s nudes play an important role in his oeuvre. Particularly the four large canvases of nudes in full scale, which Eckersberg left to the Royal Academy and which today can be found in the Akademirådets Samling invites reflection. They are very close-up and study the models, which are not set in any context, but staged by Eckersberg, one must assume, in specific positions, which at the same time have a powerful charisma; Monumental paintings with mimetic and sculptural depictions of humans.
The Perspective Illness
In 1833, Eckersberg published a small book An attempt at a guide to the use of perspective for young painters. Later, as an experienced teacher, he published a book about linear perspective in painting together with his good friend, the mathematics professor G.F. Ursin: Linear Perspective, used in painting. Perspective sketches with accompanying explanations. In the book can be found a number of illustrative etchings, where Eckersberg gives examples of the importance of perspective and shadowing for visual imagery. A manual which in detail illustrates his own method.
In the reissue of Eckersberg’s tutorial Linear Perspective (...), the artist Ole Schwalbe writes: “... especially the linear perspective is key to the most intimate experience and understanding of Eckersberg’s work. Thus, it is impossible to imagine the almost extreme realism of the multiple details in his marine pictures, as a result of mere observation of the motif. The details were known to him from his visits to Holmen and borrowing plan drawings for ships, and the linear perspective was the tool which made it possible to create an artistic order in this profusion of details.”
The art historian N.L. Høyen referred to Eckersberg’s focus on perspective method as “perspective illness”. It was a reaction to Eckersberg’s teachings and writings and all together the academic system’s penchant for perspective theory and regular compositions. Maybe Høyen thought that too much focus on perspective would overpower the nationalistic feelings he himself taught as important for a painter?
Eckersberg was a passionate seafarer and marine painter. He went on many sea voyages and often depicted ships and marine subjects in his paintings. There even exists a small model of a dinghy built by Eckersberg himself.
His marine pictures depict the navy’s man-of-war ships, yachtings and historic events, and they are carefully sketched and painted in accordance with the actual conditions at sea. In addition to his normal diary, Eckersberg also kept a meteorological diary, in which he registered weather and wind conditions.
Struck by Cholera
In Eckersberg’s diary, he registers his failing health throughout his last years. His vision deteriorated and it was difficult for him to work, but he continued his normal practice with walks, work and tuition.
“Friday 31st. Only a little sketching. Short walk with both daughters, bought several necessities. Tonight we were all gathered and had a really nice evening. The first half of the year I could still use my glasses, but just as my body weakened and my gait became less secure, also the vision on my right eye decreased significantly. Thus I ended my 70th year almost half blind.”
Quoted from Eckersberg’s diary on December 31st, 1852.
Copenhagen was hit by a cholera epidemic in the summer of 1853. Several of Charlottenborg’s staff were taken ill, among them Eckersberg, who died on July 22nd after four days of illness. He was buried at Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen.