In his recent analysis, Associate Professor Jens Toft observes that sight is always mediated in Bloch’s paintings. Figures look at the subject – and us – through windows, and many details are revealed through glass or fabric. Bloch draws attention to the viewer by incorporating the act of looking as a distinct layer in his pictures.

Bloch employs fish and other animals as central figures in the foreground of his canvases. They do not function as minor details, but are shown as disturbing assemblages or distractions.

The realistic style of painting, which he exploits to the extreme, almost activates our sense of smell. Consequently, this style can be quite sickening to behold.


The dead animals bring to mind morbidity, which is included as a disturbing element in many of Bloch’s genre pictures. In several texts about Bloch’s works, art historian Peter Nørgaard Larsen has discussed this effect. He writes, “Undoubtedly, this mixture of lust and disgust reflects Bloch’s own ideas. My goal is not to diagnose Bloch’s troubled relationship with the body and sexuality from a purely psychological standpoint. I can only say that these pictures exhibit some prominent features, such as the repeated assemblage of fish and knives; components that stand out and prevent us from simply experiencing them as low-brow genre pictures.”

An example of another Danish painter who made Golden Age themes more disturbing than idyllic, pushing genre motifs to the fore, is Kristian Zahrtmann. Zahrtmann works with sensuous assemblages in his paintings, as well. Instead of animals, flora fills the pictures; yet, Zahrtmann, like Bloch, uses colours’ electrifying effects.

Theatrical genre painting

The art of dramatizing a familiar genre scene and suggesting danger through the strategic placement of certain objects

Carl Bloch, <em>Et køkkenbord</em>, 1878, Olie på lærred, 76,5x111,5 cm, KMS1117, SMK

Theatrical genre painting in brief

  • Everday scenes captured in Italian restaurants, or osterie, grew in popularity with artists of the 1800s
  • Contemporary genre painting exhibited new, more theatrical expression due to Bloch. He dramatizes familiar genre scenes by presenting objects in a menacing way
  • Such theatrical genre paintings speak to several senses simultaneously
Wilhelm Marstrand, <em>Italiensk osteriscene. Pige, der byder den indtrædende velkommen</em>, 1847, olie på lærred, 124 x 165 cm, <link>Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek</link>, København, Foto: Ole Haupt
Ditlev Conrad Blunck, <em>Danske kunstnere i osteriet La Gensola i Rom</em>, olie på lærred, 74,5 x 99,4 cm, <link>Thorvaldsens Museum</link>, Foto: Ole Woldbye
Visitkort foto af Carl Bloch med maleriet <em>Fra et romersk osteria</em>, 1860'erne. <link>Det Kongelige Bibliotek</link>

Souvenir pictures from Italy

By: Annette Rosenvold Hvidt

Scenes of everyday life captured in an Italian restaurant, or osteria, were very popular among artists of the 1800s. Bloch drew inspiration from an osteria scene painted by his instructor, Wilhelm Marstrand, in 1848.Another familiar example is Ditlev Blunck’s painting Danish Artists in the Osteria La Gensola in Rome. In this work, we see a group of Danish artists seated at one table and an idealizing depiction of an Italian family at another.

The pictures functioned as souvenirs, reminding artists and patrons of ‘good times’ and the sensual life of the South.

Bloch’s treatment of the subject is more complex. He dramatizes a familiar genre scene by presenting objects in a menacing way.

Carl Bloch, <em>Fra et romersk osteria, </em>1866,Olie på lærred, 148,5x177,5 cm, KMS4087, SMK
Carl Bloch, <em>"Den unge mand og Døden"</em>, 1880, Radering, 165x208 mm, KKSgb8784, SMK

If looks could kill…

By: Annette Rosenvold Hvidt

Can a picture flirt with the viewer?

Yes, one is tempted to respond when facing the painting In a Roman Osteria. The figures in the foreground direct their eyes at the viewer, eliciting a response. Bloch conveys an erotic mood either directly, as seen here, or subtly in the picture’s hidden layers. The viewer meets an extra disturbance in the menacing glare of the man seated at right.

In addition to flirty and threatening looks, we are bombarded by sensory input from the meal, drinks, and other striking elements, including the gold and red accents of the figures’ clothing and the reflections visible in the decanters. Bloch pays special attention to some flies, which disrupt the idyll and remind us of the ‘here and now’ and the transitory nature of life.

There is no avoiding the picture. In an article on the topic, Associate Professor Jens Toft described the situation as follows: “What make Bloch’s paintings unique is his dynamic use of the space in front of the painting, where the viewer stands, and where the artist stood as he executed the work…the [figures] are not only visible to the viewer, but they react openly to the viewer’s presence: the two girls communicate mischievously and the aggressive man displays a hostile look and a knife in his belt. They are caught in the moment when glances are initially exchanged, when the figures become animated and confront the viewer. The viewer enters and takes control, as the painter has just given up.”

It may be noted that the picture builds an extreme oppositional and confrontational presence directed toward the viewer. In Marstrand’s painting, one can ‘sit’ quietly on the right side of the bench and observe. In contrast, Bloch’s picture forces the viewer to perform with the figures depicted.

Carl Bloch, <em>En kone, der sælger fisk</em>, 1875, Olie på træ, 36x24,5 cm, KMS1085, SMK
Carl Bloch, <em>I badetimen. En ung pige banker på vinduet i et fiskerhus,</em> 1884, Olie på træ, 45,5x32,5 cm, KMS1555, SMK
Erik Henningsen, <em>Sat ud</em>, 1892, Olie på lærred, 158x220,5 cm, KMS1454, SMK

A shock to the senses

By: Annette Rosenvold Hvidt

Bloch usually speaks to or engages several senses at once. The sense of touch comes into play in one of his early paintings, which depicts a boy who wakes a girl with a feather. Several of his paintings use a window as an element and they focus on the sense of sight.

In contrast, artist Erik Henningsen, from the same period, has a more graphic, anecdotal way to paint genre motifs. The painting Evicted Tenants presents a social-realist genre in a theatrical way – its scene is packed, but it does not bombard the senses as in works by Bloch or Zahrtmann.

Et eksempel på en anden dansk maler der gør guldaldermotiverne mere urovækkende end idylliske og dermed sætter genremotiverne på spidsen er Kristian Zahrtmann. Zahrtmann arbejder også med sanselige ophobninger i sine malerier. I stedet for dyr er det hos ham især floraen, der fylder billederne ud og Zahrtmann gør ligesom Bloch brug af farvernes inciterende effekter.

Connections to Dutch Painting

By: Annette Rosenvold Hvidt

Bloch supposedly drew most of his inspiration from Dutch 17th-century genre painting. He uses many motifs that were popular in the 1600s; for example, assemblages of fish and the slightly humourous scenes of daily life captured in the domestic interiors of peasants.

Bloch’s illusionistic – almost photographic – style of painting focuses on the unappetizing, eliciting what Peter Nørgaard Larsen terms a “meat aversion” as opposed to the “lust of the flesh” that is characteristic of Dutch 17th-century paintings.

Bertel Thorvaldsen, <em>Alderdom eller vinter</em>, 1836, marmor, 69 cm i diameter, <link>Thorvaldsens Museum</link> , Foto: Ole Woldbye
Ernst Meyer, En romersk gadeskriver skriver et brev for en ung kvinde, 1827, olie på lærred, 62,2 x 69,3 cm, <link>Thorvaldsens Museum</link>, Foto: Ole Woldbye

The Cat as Witness

By: Annette Rosenvold Hvidt

There are many telling details in Bloch's genre pictures. The cat on the left side of the painting In a Roman Osteria fulfills a special role. It assures the viewer that a witness to the situation is present. A silent prompter that witnesses the scene, brings peace, and anchors the story. Bloch does not use a random detail, but rather he builds on a longstanding visual tradition where animals function as ‘contacts’ between the picture and viewer.

In the decades preceding Bloch’s arrival in Rome, many other Danish artists used dogs and cats to serve as witnesses in their pictures. See, for example, Thorvaldsen’s relief Old Age and Ernst Meyer’s and Albert Küchler’s Italian street scenes, where animals perform a more theatrical role for the viewer.


Sigurd Schultz: Dansk genremaleri. København 1928

Gitte Valentiner: Wilhelm Marstrand – Scenebilleder. København 1992

Peter Nørgaard Larsen: ”Carl Bloch og kødets ulyst”, in Humaniora. - Årg. 14, nr. 1 1999. - p. 6-9

I lyset af Holland – Mesterværker fra hollandsk og dansk guldalder. Katalogred. Kasper Monrad og Lene Bøgh Rønberg, København Statens Museum for Kunst 2001

Drömmen om Italien – Nordiska resenärer i Södern 1750-1870. Katalogred. Sabrina Norlander. Stockholm Nationalmuseum 2004

Jens Toft: ”Carl Bloch – en Sildefødning”, in: Periskop – forum for kunsthistorisk debat nr. 12, København 2006


  •  > Read about a different type of genre painting that upheld the artistic traditions of the Golden Age
  • Carl Bloch: In a Roman Osteria, 1866  > Examine the details of <em>In a Roman Osteria</em>
  •  > Contemporary history painting played a central role in the development of theatrical techniques
  •  > Bloch often uses windows or glass as motifs in his paintings. Read about the window as a motif in art
  • Carl Bloch 1834-1890  > Read and watch a film about Carl Bloch’s life and work
  •  > <div>The sense of shock that Bloch elicits from viewers with his paintings, especially his genre scenes, is comparable to the effect of Wilhem Freddie’s late works</div>
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