The Golden Age 1770 - 1900
Please note: the gallery will be closed until on May 19 due to reconstruction
ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum's collection of paintings and sculptures from the 18th and 19th centuries is the largest in Denmark outside Copenhagen. This collection from the Danish “Golden Age” is one of the finest in the country. Founded in the mid-1800s and coeval with Denmark’s oldest museum, the collection is one we are still keen to expand with the aim of further enhancing its profile vis-à-vis the museum’s other collections.
Danish art before 1900
Danish art history begins with the founding of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1754. This is not tantamount to saying that there was no art in Denmark before that time. In Danish art collections, found in castles and churches there are artworks to be found that date back to the fourteenth century. But prior to the founding of the academy only foreign artists were capable of executing the commissions that came from the Crown and the Church. Hence, Danish art as such executed by Danish artists, became established only towards the end of the eighteenth century.
Over and above the years spent at the Academy in Copenhagen, full professional training as a painter and sculptor required further education abroad, especially in Italy or France. It was considered essential to acquire knowledge of classical art, and of the entire classical universe with its literary treasures. One of the first students to study at the Academy was the neo-classicist N.A. Abildgaard, who spent five years in Rome in the 1770s. These studies laid the foundation for his classical literary paintings. The entire career of the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen was spent in Rome and during the almost forty years of his residence there, he was a central figure for the large fraternity of Danish “Golden Age” artists who had also found their way to Italy.
The advent of “Golden Age” artists such as C.W. Eckersberg, Martinus Rørbye, Christen Købke, Johan Thomas Lundbye and P.C. Skovgaard marked a shift of focus. Hitherto, the purpose of art was to consolidate the Crown and the Church, which explains why its subject matter is exclusively historical, mythological or religious in nature. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Copenhagen’s middle class was progressively gaining more power and influence in society and art acquired new masters. While Jens Juel was painting portraits of the nobility, his son-in-law C.W. Eckersberg was doing the same for the middle classes. Grand historical themes were giving way to small genre paintings from Denmark and Italy as well as Danish landscapes, which resonated far better with middle class ideals of harmony. The keen contemporary interest in natural philosophy tended to incline art of the “Golden Age” somewhat more in the direction of realism.
Concurrent with the end of absolute monarchy and the founding of the national state around mid-century, a demand for art that related more closely to national themes was increasingly felt. The exotic Italian-inspired scenes of the "Golden Age" painters gave way to crowd pictures with subject matters drawn from Danish farming and fishing communities. To promote a sense of nationhood and to support the campaign run by the National Liberals for the adoption of Denmark’s first constitution, art was now created in ways that were quintessentially Danish. But in the absence of foreign influences, Danish art and culture gradually became increasingly provincial during this period.
The insulating effect of National Romanticism on Danish art was only broken in the 1870s when internationally oriented artists such as P.S. Krøyer travelled through Europe and into France and discovered that Naturalism was in the ascendance. The consciousness-raising and narrative pictures inspired by the National Liberals were now challenged by a new and altogether different conception of art that in its choice of subject matter abandoned rustic scenes and shifted the focus to the city and modern life. At the same time, experiments in painting techniques alongside open-air paintings, impressionistic capture of present moment in scenes it depicted were revolutionizing art.