Classicist history painting in brief
- Eckersberg's classicist history painting is closely linked to the tendencies in Europe at the time
- In the beginning of the 1800s, history painting was high up in the art hierarchy
- Artists like David and Eckersberg endowed their historic paintings of mythological and historical subjects from Antiquity with a dramatic style, which also related to their own time
- As a history painter, Eckersberg was given a large commission by King Frederik VI of two series for Christiansborg Castle, where he worked intensely on the historical correctness of the paintings
- There is great sensuality in Eckersberg's classicist paintings. The very sculptural figures glow and mythology is brought to life
An introduction to the history of classicist history painting
The classicist history painting of the artist Eckersberg is closely linked to the tendencies in Europe at the time. I will not explain the concept of classicism in great detail, but I will offer my view of how Eckersberg works with his version of a classicist history painting.
A New Style
As part of his education to become a history painter, Eckersberg went to both Paris and Rome after finishing his studies at the Academy in Copenhagen. But what did he bring with him in his artistic luggage?
Before his trip to Paris in 1810, it is clear to see how Eckersberg works with long figures whose faces and body language are inspired by his teacher Nicolai Abildgaard's Antiquity inspired figures.
This is obvious in the painting of Alexander the Great on his Sickbed, which, with its dense interior, is very close to Abildgaard's style.
Six years after the Alexander painting, Eckersberg paints The Return of Odysseus in a dramatic style, inspired by his new teacher Jacques-Louis David's paintings. Eckersberg introduces a closer reading of the models and their build and a stricter classicist composition and depiction of environment, exactly as taught by the David school. The light is distinct and sets a more rustic scene than the more mythical, which Abildgaard worked with.
A big part of the David's teaching consisted of studies of living models and the style leaned towards an idealisation of the body and an idolisation of a certain type of model, which reminded the artists of the mythological and classical figures they portrayed in their history paintings. For instance, a model could become synonymous with the perception or the idea of Odysseus.
In letters from Paris, Eckersberg wrote about David's studio:
"... you paint 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..."
About David's painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women, he wrote:
"... I cannot describe the beautiful, noble race of man, which is here portrayed in one-to-one, where the gentle female sweetly placates the power of the noble giant male; What grace, what childish innocence (...), especially in the nude, and with what spirit and sentiment it is all presented, it is genuinely touching."
Among Gods and Heroes
Among Gods and Heroes was the name of an exhibition of history painting in Rome, Paris and Copenhagen from 1770-1820. The exhibition was at SMK in 1990 and it showed how Danish history painting ties in with European history painting.
The French artist Jacques-Louis David and his pupil Eckersberg were some of the prominent artists, who challenged the difficult history painting in the beginning of the 1800s. In a turbulent time, they dug up mythological and historical subjects from Antiquity, and added a dramatic, realistic, but also controlled classicist style, which particularly in David's case has made his paintings strong art historical icons. The figures are clear and ideal like marble sculptures and they act in fascinating, defined spaces with stone floors, rocks and pillars.
A lesser known history painter, also a student of David's, is Johan Ludvig Lund. Lund was a professor at the Academy as was Eckersberg, but he has been partially forgotten, overshadowed by Eckersberg. Lund's painting of Pyrrhus and Andromache before Hector's Tomb is, in a huge format, colouring and composition, interesting to look at in relation to Eckersberg's painting of The Israelites after the Crossing of the Red sea.
Both artists control a complex image universe with abstract history painting subjects, which are staged on very large canvasses. Lund has antique sculptures as reference point for his figures. Eckersberg, on the other hand, is closer to model studies in his figures, who are all arranged in sculptural groups. Two different ways in which to work with figures in a classicist and sculptural way.
The sensuous side of Eckersberg's early paintings is an aspect of classicism, which also his teacher David and his friend, the sculptor Thorvaldsen have fully integrated into their work.
The God of desire, Cupid, is never far away, and in Eckersberg's work, the mythological figures are always depicted in such a way that the spectator has full access to study the bodies of the figures and their emotional wherewithal. The figures are often placed with their "soft", naked skin close to cliffs and rocks, so that their perfect model bodies stand out and so that the bodies' sculptural qualities and 'rock fast' forms are displayed in the most optimal way.
Eckersberg's figures are, just like David's depiction of Psyche, often sleeping or introvert, so we, as spectators, can look at them as much as we please. They aren't looking back at us. An exception from this is David's figure of Cupid, which reverses everything by reaching out to us, blushing.
Eckersberg's figures also blush, you could say that the person inside the idealised sculptural bodies is breaking through. The mythology is called to life and a sensuous layer is pushed into the classicist, which is traditionally viewed as cool and sexless.
Eckersberg makes full use of the complementary and intensely optical effects of the green/red colours to bring his figures to life. There is an inciting and a bit shocking interaction between the heavy, sculptural bodies and the pulse, which runs through them and makes the model behind it so present in the painting. It is like sculptures blushing.
Expressed blushing is a theme in Eckersberg's paintings, as art historian Lotte Nishanthi Winther has written about in relation to Eckersberg's portraits, where she interprets this phenomenon as an apparent diversion from the classical norm, and as such a 'resistance' in Eckersberg's work.
Painting for the Court
"Eckersberg's name was long ago canonised for everything other than what he himself found important, namely the history painting... All the works that he considered "petty" are sold for millions today, whereas his history paintings are forgotten and only seen by people who are so lucky as to get an audience with the queen or follow a guided tour of the reception rooms at Christiansborg Castle."
In several articles, the art historian Karsten Ohrt focuses on Eckersberg's large commissions for King Frederik VI of two series of paintings for the other Christiansborg Castle. Eckersberg was given this assignment just after he had returned from Rome, and he first painted four paintings for the Throne Room from 1817 to 1828 and then four for the Great Hall, which were actually hung in the stateroom from 1833 to 1841.
The Christiansborg paintings are examples of how Eckersberg was capable of adjusting from his education as a classicist history painter to a more historic-realistic style, which was more in harmony with the demands placed on him by the court.
The King and the Royal Building Commission controlled the assignment and kept Eckersberg under close supervision, while keeping an eye on the historic correctness of every detail. Karsten Ohrt specifies the criteria that Eckersberg had to adhere to: "The artist had to depict a moment of national and general importance. Also, he should depict the monarch as the First Citizen and as a model human being. At the same time, he had to produce something with an emotional appeal to the spectator."
Eckersberg was able to accommodate all these demands and satisfy the wishes of the court, as well as relay a personal experience into the historical moments.
One of the paintings in the Christiansborg series is markedly different. It is [Elefantordenen (...)]: "Maybe this is the most fascinating of Eckersberg's historic paintings...", writes Karsten Ohrt, who also points to the difficulty of the subject, because how do you actually paint the institution of an order? Eckersberg was aided in this work by order historiographer Laurits Engelstoft, who found picture sources to support the historical details, so that Eckersberg could lean on documented knowledge.
History painting continues throughout the 1800s with focus on historical correctness in the detail. But the bids to appeal to the spectator become more and more intense. The history painting becomes seductive and an artist such as Carl Block picks up from where Abildgaard and Eckersberg leave off, now with a large degree of emotional appeal to the spectator.
Did you know?
Eckersberg's drawings from Paris rediscover the theme of the classicist paintings with sleeping or preoccupied figures. He takes special note of sleeping and reading people on his walks through town. Eckersberg has a visible focus on being under an influence.
The tendency can be interpreted as a creative response to the heavy burden of tradition and the exhausting process of formation to which an artist submitted himself, by constantly striving, improving their skill sets and comparing themselves with the ideals of Antiquity and the 'grand masters'.