J.F. Willumsen 1863-1958
Willumsen’s unique, monumental style with intense colours and dashing light made him a controversial figure of his time
Willumsen in brief
- A true multi-artist: painter, lithographer, sculptor, artisan, architect, photographer, art collector, art historian and writer
- His production between the 1880s and the 1950s spanned from realism, over symbolism and art nouveau to vitalism and expressionism. But his style is ultimately his own.
- Willumsen’s style is characterised by intense, contrast-filled colours and light and his work often deals with universal themes such as the human condition.
- Three women had determining influence on his life and art. He was married twice and from 1930 until his death, he lived with a third woman. All three women were artists themselves.
- Willumsen had an ambivalent relation with Denmark, his home country, where he never really felt acknowledged.
- He worked hard for a museum in his own name, but the idea was met with resistance. One year before his death, in 1957, a museum was finally built.
- Today, Willumsen is considered a deeply original and totally unique figure in Danish art history.
A break with the academy
When Willumsen at 18 decided to become an artist, he applied to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. But four years later, in 1885, he left without a finished education. Like so many other young artists at the time, he was dissatisfied with the rigid way art was taught there and the lack of artistic challenges and innovation. Instead, he frequented the free artistic milieus around the Artists’ Independent Academy. He made some experiments in social realism, had several paintings accepted at the Royal Academy's Spring Exhibition at Charlottenborg and was praised for portraying poor people and workers with great authenticity.
Controversy on all counts
The young Willumsen’s social commitment and artistic ambition culminated in the work Wedding of the King's Son, which portrayed society’s poor in sharp contrast to the glittering abundance of the upper classes. To Willumsen’s great disappointment, the work was rejected by Charlottenborg, and quite characteristic of his temper, he never sent another work to Charlottenborg! This was also determining for the fact that he, in 1891, became one of the co-founders of The Independent Exhibition, the alternative to the censured exhibitions of the Royal Academy at Charlottenborg. He was done with Charlottenborg, but not with Wedding of the King's Son, this remained to him a challenge he hadn’t been able to meet. Many years later he returned to the scene and re-worked this work of his youth, this time in a radically different style.
The same year as the founding of The Independent Exhibition, Willumsen created his first scandal in the Danish art world with some of the works he exhibited there. The small etching Fertility prompted considerable indignation among the audience and parts of the press ridiculed the work. Primarily, the motif of the etching was considered inappropriate. Willumsen’s wife was portrayed in an advanced state of pregnancy without modesty or embellishment, and next to her a wildly sprouting ear of wheat to symbolize reproduction. But what also raised people’s shackles was the deliberately primitive style, Willumsen chose to use. He deviated completely from the style approved by the academy and he did it with eyes wide open! The etching was provided with a kind of artistic manifest, written in French (in translation):
“The old art has its own old language which one has slowly learned to understand. A new art has a newly formed language, which you must learn before you can understand it.”
Exchanging ideas with Gauguin
From the late 1880s and well into the 1890s, Willumsen kept in close contact with the trend-setting French art scene. He stayed several years in the art metropolis Paris and also went to Brittany several times, where he worked together with the French artist Paul Gauguin. They exchanged works, Willumsen was given Gauguin’s wooden statuette La Luxure in exchange for his own painting Typical Breton Woman. In addition, he was inspired by Gauguin to start experimenting with ceramics. At this time, Willumsen also partook in Salon des Indépendants’ exhibitions in Paris, the French model for The Independent Exhibition in Copenhagen.
Juliette and Edith
The 1890s were spent with Willumsen’s first wife, Juliette Meyer, who was a sculptor and daughter of a wealthy brandy distiller. They had two sons, Jan and Bode. According to Willumsen, the marriage was marred by the fact that he didn’t particularly respect neither Juliette nor her family. The art critic Peter Michael Hornung has shown, however, that this sounds more like a convenient post-rationalisation as Willumsen is said to have enjoyed the wealthy milieu as long as it lasted. But in his memoirs he mentions Juliette with coldness:
“Juliette didn’t care much when we received reminders in the post, but it agonised me and made me nervous and testy. On top of that, Juliette was born lazy and didn’t use her indisputable talent or fill out her place in the household, whereas I have been a busy-bee all my life.”
In 1897, Willumsen’s experience as a ceramicist landed him the job as artistic manager at the porcelain factory Bing & Grøndahl. Here he met the young painter and artisan Edith Wessel, who became his assistant and who deeply admired his progressive, artistic style. Willumsen quickly learned to respect the young, intelligent woman, whom he saw as his equal. They fell in love and in 1902, Willumsen divorced Juliette to marry Edith the following year. While Willumsen was still married to Juliette, he took a picture of himself, naked in bed. Next to him is a small photograph, supposedly of Edith.
In the spring of 1902, the happy couple went on a trip to the Swiss Alps. Here, Willumsen made a number of sketches of the mountains and of Edith, trekking in the beautiful landscape. He used these sketches years later as the model for one of his most famous paintings A Mountain Climber, which can be seen as an unconditional homage to his new wife.
In the following years, Edith is pivotal to Willumsen’s life and work. Her characteristic profile can be seen in numerous paintings, sculptures, sketches and prints and she inspired him to depict the female motif as both reflected and independent, but also motherly. Their two daughters, Anse and Gersemi, are also portrayed in many paintings. The large painting The Evening Soup can be viewed as the intense culmination of Willumsen’s studies of Edith as a human being and muse. Here Edith poses as a luminous source of energy in the centre of the daughters’ devoted gazes.
The couple often travelled to Spain, North Africa, Greece and Italy and lived for long periods of time in the south of France. So long in fact, that Willumsen saw himself as more French than Danish.
In 1928, their marriage ended in divorce, according to Willumsen’s memoirs because Edith’s love and loyalty were warn out by prolonged “illness and ill adapted minds.”
Staging a myth
The myth about the brilliant but unappreciated artist is well known. Willumsen was an incarnation of this myth. His self esteem was high, but he generally felt misunderstood and not appreciated for his work. In fact, his art was highly appreciated by his contemporaries. Although his style was controversial, his works were still much sought after from around 1917-18, among museums as well as collectors and were sold at very good prices, not least thanks to his friend Alice Bloch’s great talent as a sales woman.
In 1920 he was asked to become professor at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, a request he turned down with his characteristic arrogance:
“And what purpose does it serve that the Academy and other schools every year take in scores of young men, which society has no need for? Other than filling it with amateurs?”
In spite of the success he experienced, Willumsen undauntingly kept on identifying himself isolated artist genius, high above the ignorant masses. He staged himself in numerous self portraits and photographs, where he adapted various aspects of the role as the artist genius and pater familias: Working, reflecting, surrounded by art and wisdom and his devoted family. His three-part major work, Titian Dying, can be viewed as a picture of his perception of himself as an artist who struggles and suffers in isolation, but emerges on the other side; serene, strengthened and high above the banalities of the world.
Willumsen was a complex person. He is described as a person who chose isolation by only taking an interest in his own artistic project. At the same time, he had considerable charisma and drew people towards him. Often, words and phrases such as “one of a kind” and “individualist” are used when the talk is about Willumsen. Ernst Mentze, to whom Willumsen told his memoirs in the early 1950s, describes the artist as “intransigent, introverted and egocentric”; characteristics that Willumsen himself considered necessary for an artist.
In connection with his 60th birthday in 1923, an exhibition was arranged with up towards 500 of his works and a grand party at The Independent Exhibition. The sculptor Johannes Bjerg held one of the speeches and finished with these words: “We celebrate you as Denmark’s foremost painter.” Shortly after, the art historian Leo Swane wrote a sarcastic comment in a national paper:
“The jubilations (at the 60th birthday) rightly overturned the myth about Willumsen as the great unappreciated artist.”
Becoming a master
Willumsen is known for his extraordinarily meticulous work methods. He was very dissatisfied with the quality of art material, more and more of it factory made, something that lowered the quality. Instead, he experimented with different pigments, glues, primers and canvas qualities, which he tested and catalogued as if he were a scientist. And when he sometimes had to compromise on material quality, it was only because he, periodically, was penniless.
Willumsen wasn’t just meticulous with his materials. When he was preparing for a large canvas or relief, he would often do lots and lots of studies beforehand. A good example is the painting Sun and Youth from 1910. Between 1902 and 1909, Willumsen photographed and sketched at the beaches at Amalfi, Brittany and Skagen, Denmark’s northernmost point. There are more than a hundred sketches for this work alone, which all pointed towards the 'dress rehearsal', a version in 1:1 before the final battle with the work itself.
The 'dress rehearsal' for Sun and Youth is considered a major work in its own right, titled Children Bathing on Skaw Beach. Willumsen has described his working process:
“After having done all the preparations for a work, in the form of composition sketches, studies, etc., and I believe that I know everything that’s necessary to paint the picture, I paint a preliminary picture, usually full size, entirely out of my head. That’s the kind of preliminary work I like to call 'the dress rehearsal'. This shows me if I’m capable of painting the picture with the knowledge I’ve collected by means of my studies or if I need to do more. I’m convinced that a painter doesn’t know his subject until he knows it by heart. You can’t be a questioning student and a knowledgeable master at the same time.”
Odd late works
Willumsen’s artist career started with scandals over his experimental works, e.g. the etching Fertility, which caused great indignation in 1891. As he grew older, his early work was recognised as pioneering in modern art. At the same time, many people found it difficult to stomach his later production from the 1930s onwards.
The art historian Sigurd Schultz called it “the period we couldn’t stomach.”
At a time when modernistic simplicity and purity was prevailing in Danish art, Willumsen was alone in painting epic dramas in bright colours. None of his contemporaries were anything like him, so he stood alone with this form of expression and felt generally misunderstood and ill treated, in spite of the fact that he had many faithful supporters in Denmark.
Lately, the interest for Willumsen’s later works has increased. Until now they have been almost totally absent from books and exhibitions since his death. Especially the Willumsen Museum in Frederikssund has made a great effort to pull these works out from the storerooms and art historic oblivion, latest with a thorough look at the strange, hybrid work Wedding of the King's Son.
New muse, new museum
The late period is also strongly influenced by the third woman in Willumsen’s life, the 37 years younger French dancer and artist Michelle Bourret. From around 1930 she took over the role that had earlier been Edith’s, as Willumsen’s muse. In addition to be his preferred model, she was also a painter herself. There are even examples of collaborative work, for instance the late painting The Old Painter and his Muse, which is signed by both.
Next to his indefatigable work with his art, Willumsen spent af lot of energy on establishing a museum to house his own works and his private collection, 'The Old Collection'. Willumsen offered his collections as a gift for the Danish state on the condition that a large and elegant museum be built in the heart of Copenhagen to house it. To Willumsen’s great indignation, this dragged out for economic as well as other reasons, as the public opinion was split on the matter. Not until 1957, a year before he died, the museum became a reality as J.F. Willumsen’s Museum in the small provincial town of Frederikssund.
Inspirations and network
Willumsen’s number one paragon was El Greco, a painter from the 15th century, about whom he wrote a two-volume work and one of whose early paintings was the jewel in his private collection. His private collection consists of older European art, which he himself attributed to some of the great masters, such as Titian, Tintoretto and Parmigianino. Many art experts have been sceptical about Willumsen’s attributions, but however attributed these works were important sources of inspiration for Willumsen. The strange French painter Adolphe Monticelli with the byname "the woolen" was especially cherished by Willumsen. In addition to Monticelli, Willumsen himself mentions Richard Wagner’s and Ludwig van Beethoven’s music as determining sources of inspiration.
In his memoirs, he recounts that “Beethoven’s 9th symphony had a celestial effect on me.”
Throughout his long life, Willumsen had contact to many of the leading artists and intellectual leaders of his time. In the 1890s, his contact with Groupe des Artistes Indépendants and the Pont Aven group was important to his own development. His connection with The Independent Exhibition meant that he also in a Danish context was part of a network, which agitated for artistic rejuvenation at the time.
The composer Carl Nielsen and his artist wife Anne Marie Carl Nielsen, who also belonged to the circle around The Independent Exhibition, were his close friends throughout their lives and the artistic affinity between Nielsen’s music and Willumsen’s paintings is often pointed out.
- J.F. Willumsen: A Mountain Climber, 1912 > Willumsen's painting of his wife Edith standing in a mountaineous landscape expresses his deep fascination with the relation between (wo)man and nature
- Artists’ wives > The motif of Edith as a mountain climber can be seen as part of a general trend around the year 1900 where male artists painted monumental portraits of their wives
- Willumsen’s technique > A conservator has investigated the special circumstances under which the two versions of Willumsen's A Mountain Climber were produced