Idea and Reality
Eckersberg was a man of perspective, but how did he really use it in his paintings?
Idea and Reality in brief
- Eckersberg depicts reality in great detail at the same time as he works with a manipulated ideal version of reality
- You could say that Eckersberg interprets an idea through nature - nature isn’t really the motif. As a method for interpreting his ideas through nature, he uses perspective’s organisation of a motif
- The art historian Erik Fischer has named this phenomenon “Eckersberg’s harmonious universe” and has shown how perspective is one of the pillars in Eckersberg’s art
The essential picture
How to describe Eckersberg’s artistic project, when saying he depicts nature in minute detail isn’t enough? What is it he does with the imagery of nature? And why does it always seem so convincing and harmonious when his pictures were manipulated?
The art historian Erik Fischer has tried to answer these questions by accurately defining Eckersberg’s project, which he calls “Eckersberg’s harmonious universe." Eckersberg himself writes in one of his text books:
“Any work of art’s real value rests mainly on the precise congruence between form and the essential picture.”
Fischer interprets Eckersberg’s “essential picture” as the ideas that are beyond the visible phenomena. This means that an artist interprets an idea through nature, nature itself is not the essential picture.
Fischer analyses and sums up Eckersberg’s statement like this:
1. The value of a work of art is only connected to its expression of ideas beyond visible phenomena.
2. A realistic outer form is necessary to render the idea visible.
3. As the artist’s idea works in any setting, the artist can take on any assignment and still express the idea behind the phenomena.
4. But for the idea to be clearly expressed, it is a condition that it is clad in a plausible or convincing outer form. Implicit: No spectator would otherwise be able to find it in the work of art.
5. Therefore, the artist must learn to render all visible phenomena in a true and convincing way.
6. But the value of art is not in the faithful rendition of nature. It rests solely in the artist’s ability to interpret the idea through outer phenomena. (quoted from Fischer, 1983, p. 15)
When Eckersberg writes a detailed meteorological diary (which he did from 1826-1851) and spends many hours everyday studying nature’s phenomena, it makes him more capable of interpreting his ideas through it, thus becoming an artist who, in Fischer’s words, cultivates a “peculiar mix of philosophical idealism and experimental, scholarly knowledge of the natural world.”
The art historian Henrik Holm adds to Fischer’s analyses with a special perspective on Eckersberg’s position, midway between the ordered systems of classicism and modernity’s chaotic images: “ It almost seems as if he wishes time, space and development to forever remain in a static, well balanced constancy. He becomes an almost possessed guardian of the fixed gaze at a time where the fractured and fleeting gaze is taking over, the way it can be seen in his pupils."
And Henrik Holm concludes: “I would consider Eckersberg one of the Western world’s best custodians of the controlled potential of the visual, with all that entails such as an ability to control the spectator, fool him and please him in a difficult transition between two epistemes. Eckersberg constructs an idealised normality to such an extreme that other Danish artists on Danish ground, before him and after, would be subjected to scrupulous evaluations in relation to ideals bound to this normality.”
Perspective was Eckersberg’s guiding light. In his own work as well as in his teachings at the Academy, perspective and its many possibilities in the composition of a painting were the foundation on which Eckersberg’s work was founded. He published two textbooks on perspective, one of which titled Linear Perspective, used in painting. Perspective sketches with accompanying explanations and it was written together with his good friend, the professor of mathematics, G.F. Ursin.
The art historian Erik Fischer has investigated Eckersberg’s perspective carefully, based on analyses of selected works, and about the etchings in the book Linear Perspective (...) he concludes:
”These pictures do not fall into the period’s usual art categories, including that of the pointed genre anecdote. They defy meaningful interpretation, and their subjects seem strange in a didactic work on art theory written for young painters. Nevertheless they provoke interpretation, and this is their most charming quality…These pictures demonstrate the artist’s potential for a metaphysical, even cosmological humour, a potential barely traceable elsewhere in his work(…): a humour and a freedom, generated by working with the theory of art.”
Fischer has an eye for the non-naturalistic, but mystical and humorous sides to Eckersberg’s interest in perspective and structure.
Seeing through arches
The arch motif or the framed motif, to view something through arches, vaults or colonnades, is an often used technique in paintings from the 1800s. In Rome and indeed all of Italy it seems rather obvious, because the many ruins and colonnades in the Roman cityscape and the Italian landscape appeal to spectators. The beautiful picturesque views can be ordered through a structured and somewhat dramatic frame.
As pointed out by the art historian Thomas Lederballe, this is in harmony with Eckersberg’s sense of perspective: “The question and the structuring of perspective had caught Eckersberg’s interest during his stay in Paris, but it is especially the vistas from Rome that bear witness to his preoccupation with this subject. A framed view with a strict construction with emphasis on the ingoing lines or a point de vue will often make the spectator aware of the perspective effects."
There’s something very photographic about a view through an arch. The way the camera provides the possibility of focus and outline, the arch does the same thing. Eckersberg gives us three lenses through which to view the motif, his method is not the snapshot but the carefully constructed perspective. The arches push a layer, in the shape of a focusing frame, in between the spectator and the background. Like a pair of binoculars or a camera, he provides us with a possibility to control the chaos of details we have in front of us.
Several writers in art history have pointed to the “photographic sensibility” in the early 1800s. Karina Lykke Grand sees Eckersberg as a “proto-photographic” spectator. In an article, Hidden Camera, Lykke Grand writes about Eckersberg’s painting of the view from Colosseum’s arches: “Eckersberg’s detailed photographic style in the Colosseum-painting has sometimes led to some interesting commentary. Among other comments, the painting’s technique has been described as surreal and as if it were painted in moonlight... These characteristics, appointed to this specific painting, I view as symptomatic of the fact that the traditional art historical terms are not sufficient to describe
Eckersberg’s visual expression. Therefore, I find it more appropriate to enter the painting in the proto-photographic visuality, as the extra-realistic, to me, consists of a period interest in transgressing the physiological vision’s possibilities. A transgression that tempts you to imagine that he had a hidden camera with him when he painted the picture.”
One of the first researchers who wrote about the connection between painting and photography in the 1800s was Peter Galassi, who, in the catalogue Before Photography pointed to the artist Camille Corot’s pictures from Colosseum in Rome as pre-photographic.
Eckersberg’s penchant for ordering and commanding his motif by means of trichotomy can also be seen in the works of some of his contemporaries. The connection between the three-arches composition in Eckersberg’s Colosseum picture and the arched room in the master Jacques-Louis David’s painting Oath of the Horatii is obvious and has been acknowledged many times.
In a more figurative way, the trichotomy is also a theme in contemporary art. David’s three arches in the background of [Horatiernes ed] corresponds with the story of the three sons going into battle. Quite theatrically, one can picture how the three warriors can step into the world via each his arch. The world is structured according to the will of power and the gaze is controlled by the trichotomy.
The sculptor Thorvaldsen chose in his sculpture Cupid and the Graces to show the same body from three different angles at once in a group of figures, which prioritises a degree of order and harmony. In Eckersberg’s picture with the view from Colosseum through the three arches, we, as spectators, are given the chance to view a complexity from one point. We are given an idealised essential picture.
That a composition with a tripartite archway will also remind you of triptychs is another angle, which provides food for thought in connection with Eckersberg’s way of showing city vistas. Will he elevate the “common” motif of a view of a city to a more significant level? Does his painting also idealise by referring further back in artistic tradition?
Bonus info: The central part of the facade of SMK is also tripartite, like a triumphal arch. The building was designed by architect Vilhelm Dahlerup and was inaugurated in 1896.
Rome in Order
The art historian Kasper Monrad has in several articles explained how Eckersberg composed his Roman vistas in the period 1813-16. Especially the painting A View through Three Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum in Rome has been the object of Monrad’s attention: “The painting bears witness to an amazing power of observation. Eckersberg has viewed the ruin with the care of an archaeologist and the numerous background details are depicted with great accuracy, probably by means of a pair of binoculars. But the striking effect of the painting is first and foremost the framing of the view by the three arches... You are not surprised to learn that he was a pupil of the French painter J.L. David in Paris. If you try to establish Eckersberg’s work methods, it becomes clear that he hasn’t depicted one view of Rome. He has in fact pieced three views together... In other words, he has adjusted the visible reality so that each part of the painting could obtain a clearly structured character.”
With the conservators Mikkel Scharff and Jørgen Wadum, Kasper Monrad has, with the help of infrared filming of the Roman vistas, come closer to Eckersberg’s and his students’ real method. “The sketches, often composition drawings, which were done in front of the motif, were carefully constructed and revealed ample details. The architecture had the painters’ greatest attention, while the vegetation, cliffs and rocks as well as the occasional humans were secondary. The sketches were done directly from the motif and were then often squared off in order to be transferred to the painting, which was often no larger than the sketch. During the transfer process, some elements may change, but by and large, the artist would maintain the original dispositions quite precisely. The architecture would occasionally be deliberately changed to magnify forms and create harmony in the painting. In this way, we can document that, although the Italian motifs at first seem realistic, they were nevertheless adjusted and manipulated by the artists.”
- C.W. Eckersberg: A View through Three of the North-Western Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum in Rome > Zoom in on the work where Eckersberg painted views through three arches of the Colosseum
- Classicist history painting > Eckersberg was a trained history painter - the most distinguished artistic discipline during his time