Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783-1853), The Nathanson Family, 1818

The merchant Mendel Levin Nathanson and his wife are greeted by their children after having had an audience with the Queen.

With this family portrait Nathanson marked how the simpler lifestyles and values of the middle classes now set the tone in Denmark.

The family parade themselves and their bourgeois

The children seem to have been interrupted mid-dance, but in truth this scene does not depict a random moment. The family parade themselves and their bourgeois ways almost as if on stage.

The intention

Nathanson had another, personal objective: He would have wished to show that he, being Jewish, was fully integrated in society. A leading figure within the integration of Jews in Denmark, he was also a great patron of Danish art and culture. During the years 1812-20 he was Eckersberg’s most important patron

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, The Nathanson Family, 1818

On the one hand... and on the other hand... on Eckersbergs "The Nathanson Family"

C.W. Eckersberg, Familien Nathansen, 1818

All movement has been carefully positioned and captured in this painting. The figures have been arranged in a line like in the reliefs of Antiquity, even though there is ample space on the floor. Their gazes catch all diagonals in the space – and your eye, too. Father, mother, and children will all be together in a moment, either prior to or after having been apart. Here, a happy, well-integrated Jewish family – the Nathansons – present themselves as upright Danish citizens. They sponsored Eckersberg. To repay them he captured them in paint and held them up before our gaze. Their eyes scrutinise each other – and us, before we look at them.  Who has power over what we see here? Eckersberg does; he who is known as the father of Danish painting. Father looks at us through all the gazes. Is the stove looking too? We bow to his gaze and authority with a smile. This is what the good family is like; this is what the good father is like until we disobey his demand for calm and order.

Henrik Holm, Research Curator

On the other hand:

The merchant Mendel Levin Nathanson commissioned this family portrait from Eckersberg, and he had a very definite concept in mind. Eckersberg really wanted to show the family engaged in a pleasant private moment, and in one drawing he depicted the children and adults performing a circle dance. But Nathanson wanted a painting with a rather more public quality to it. So here, only the children are occupied with music and dancing. They are interrupted by their parents entering through the door. The occasion is not randomly chosen. The couple have just been in audience with the Queen. The event marked the acme so far of Nathanson’s career. Having arrived in Copenhagen as a poor Jewish immigrant at the tender age of 13 he very quickly became a successful businessman and grew into a major patron of Danish culture. With this family picture he wished to demonstrate his new position.

Kasper Monrad, Senior Research Curator

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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