Other Aspects of Eckersberg’s Golden Age in Brief
- With his Golden Age motifs, Eckersberg has given us matter-of-fact registrations of the world around him, but there are also other more disturbing and illusionist elements in his work
- His erotic pictures have often been explained away as the weakness of a very young or an old man, but maybe they are an essential part of his work?
- Eckersberg worked with many different figures in his paintings, among them: ornamental figures, models, everyday scenes with figures, academic figures and portraits. Here, you'll get an insight into some of these different figures
- Throughout his life, Eckersberg was intensely preoccupied with life on the street, from his own very specifically chosen points of view. He would look for and stage everyday phenomena, like a detective, and he would often hide the explanation of this phenomenon to the spectator
What are they doing?
One of the things that are discussed about Eckersberg’s drawing of the two women at the window is what they are doing and if that is relevant to the picture? The discussion is part of the bigger discussion of Eckersberg’s so-called ‘Golden Age motifs’ with figures and also his portraits: Are they merely sober registrations or are there several possible interpretations? Are they straightforward or are there disturbances and “resistance potential” in them?
The discussion covers a vast body of material, but here we mostly look at interiors with figures and at a couple of portraits by Eckersberg.
Women by Windows and Mirrors
When people have their back to the spectator, it always invokes a certain curiosity, because we can't see the expressions on their faces and what exactly they are up to. This is also the case with Eckersberg's drawing of two young women by a window in his studio. Besides being a thoroughly orchestrated composition of this particular room, the centrally placed figures call for our attention. They are a bit too present to be merely ornamental, a term otherwise often used in connection with Eckersberg's use of figures.
In their mention of the drawing the art historians Kasper Monrad and Peter Michael Hornung note that this motif is typical of the art of the time, but that Eckersberg doesn't take part in the wanderlust of the Romantic period. He is more locally oriented and views the world through Golden Age glasses: "Corresponding motifs with women with their backs turned and facing a window can be found in works by several contemporary German artists, Carl Gustav Carus, Georg Friedrich Kersting and Caspar David Friedrich. In fact, the two girls in Eckersberg's drawing do not look out the window. They are merely reading a letter in the light of the window. This focus on the intimate is characteristic of the Danish Golden Age...".
In another text about the drawing At a Window in the Artists Studio, the art historian Vibeke Knudsen offers an analysis of the motif, where she defines Eckersberg's project as the opposite of the Romantic period's images of wanderlust: "A lot has been said about figures with their backs turned and facing windows, particularly when discussing German Romanticism and C.D. Friedrich. The symbolism of this motif is not unequivocal, but can be interpreted as the romantic person's conflict between a society-bound existence and a vision of freedom. Eckersberg's two figures (...) should probably not be seen as depicting this conflict. Firstly, they are not looking out of the window, but are preoccupied with looking at a letter or a book, secondly, Eckersberg has only rarely sought conflict in his pictures in other than on a conventional level. On the contrary, as a mature artist, his entire aesthetic project was one lengthy striving to show that atonement between people was possible."
Several writers have pointed to the fact that Eckersberg in his portraits challenges our gaze by using displacements and illusions, which are not entirely easy to grasp.
Eckersberg is a master of representing different surfaces in a very illusionistic way. This, he has in common with his contemporary Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who, like Eckersberg, was a pupil of the painter Jacques-Louis David in Paris. The twin portrait of the sisters Bella and Hanna Nathanson can be most confusing once you start scrutinising Eckersberg's detailed exposition of the many types of surfaces: the fabric of the dress, the pile of the carpet, the shiny wood and the metallic birdcage, not to mention the parrot's plumage and the girls' skin. It is most enticing. At the same time, however, you're on guard as to the substance of the picture: Isn't the room a bit stuffy and why are the figures so rigid and statuary?
In an article by Jørgen Folmer: [Kæledyret (...)], 1998, he analyses each single element in the picture and he offers an explanation of the erotic meaning of the parrot in the picture.
Ingres uses some of the same mechanisms in his portraits, among them in the picture of Comtesse d'Haussonville, where you're left in some bewilderment about the ghostlike image in the mirror and the woman's very soft fingers. Ingres cultivates these inciting, mystical circumstances and his pictures have inspired many modernists and surrealists, such as Picasso and Dali.
In Eckersberg, these little displacements and mysteries have been named 'resistance potential' by the art historian Lotte Nishanthi Winther, who takes into account the optical illusions in Eckersberg's portraits: "At first glance, C.W. Eckersberg's portrait [Julie (...)] seems to be an interpreted reproduction of an especially loving intimacy and confidence, which was present between these two as lovers when the picture was painted in 1817. But if you look closely, you'll see that the picture behaves strangely in some areas. Why, for instance, are there two books on the table behind the female figure and why is the mirror frame, as the only thing in the picture, painted with an especially rich outline? What's going on in the picture is that the painting is playing with its inherent spectator (...) In this way, the portrait of Julie Eckersberg turns out to portray something more than a loving relationship between two people and the female figure does not hold the determining position as the picture's analytical climax."
Nishanthi Winther emphasises Eckersberg's special kind of realism in the portraits where all details are rendered with equal accuracy: "... goes far beyond what the human eye is capable of registering, unless this eye is aided by some sort of vision prosthesis, which makes it possible to see everything in equal detail, no matter the distance." It is the same effect as the one Kasper Monrad and others point to in Eckersberg's prospects from Rome, the paintings are manipulated constructions as much as they are representations.
Strange scenes and lustful motifs
In the same way he depicts architecture and meteorological events, Eckersberg also depicts relations between people, episodes, in a more or less erotic, anecdotal or sublime fashion. To Eckersberg, everyday meetings or clashes and flirts between people are as appropriate motifs as all the other observations he makes.
In the Royal Collection of Graphic Art's rich collection of Eckersberg's drawings and graphics, you'll come across an absurd scene, titled [En siddende mand (...)]. What on earth is going on here, and is this something Eckersberg has witnessed himself, or how are we to interpret it? The drawing isn't dated or signed, so there's nothing to be learned there.
Eckersberg's sympathy seems to be with the women who're being beaten, the munk punishing them sits awkwardly and looks somewhat deranged. The drawing of the scantily dressed women is linked to Eckersberg's model sketches of nudes or almost-nudes, which he staged in connection with his work with his students at the Academy. Maybe Eckersberg mixed his model sketches with fantasies or memories of such an episode.
In its style and motif, the drawing of the girls and the monk is reminiscent of the drawing [Et par belures (...)]. This one is from Eckersberg's later period, and again his sympathy seems to lay with the party being observed, in this case the couple who are unpleasantly disturbed by a kind of watchful authority. The spectator's own "spying on" the picture is reflected by the woman who's watching from the doorway, and Eckersberg is playing with the voyeuristic situation, which is always part of our roles as spectators.
The art historian Emil Hannover, one of the first to write in detail about Eckersberg's work, disregards a large amount of his work and tries to explain it with the bad influence of Eckersberg's first wife, Christine Hyssing. Hannover says: "The lustfulness in Eckersberg cannot be explained away. It shows itself mainly in the depiction of female forms, in their excessive appearance under the dress or in their voluptuous escape from it. All his life, Eckersberg found it difficult to hide his joy in this; Even in his later years, it stayed with him as an ingrained bad habit from his youth and the common environment he then lived in."
Quoted from Emil Hannover: [Maleren C.W. Eckersberg (...)]. Copenhagen, 1898, p. 31.
Hannover's censoring is in line with the assessment of other 1800s artists' works, e.g. Thorvaldsen's erotic drawings, which appear to have been almost completely weeded out by later times' moral guardians. Eckersberg's more or less erotic figures do not fit into this period's image of the Golden Age or of Eckersberg as a royal historic painter.
Throughout his life, Eckersberg was intensely preoccupied with life on the street from his own very specifically chosen points of view. He would look for and stage everyday phenomena, like a detective, and he would often hide the explanation of this phenomenon to the spectator.
It is the dynamics and the visual experiments he wishes to show. The meeting between people of different statures and meetings between people and the elements, e.g. people in strong winds, pulling at clothes. The meetings between human figures and the city’s architecture in ingenious compositions, which combine something tangible with something manipulated.
Did you know?
The artist J.F. Willumsen had a similar interest in showing dynamics and everyday phenomena in his paintings, such as the painting of [To Bretagnekoner (...)].