Christen Kobke : Danish Master of Light

London, National Gallery, from 17 March to 13 June 2010
Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland, from 4 July to 3 October 2010

1. Christen Købke (1810-1848)
The plasters collection
in Charlottenborg
, 1830
Oil on canvas
Copenhague, Hirschsprung collection
Photo : Hirschsprung collection

The National Gallery is offering, alongside the exhibition highlighting Delaroche [1], a very interesting retrospective on the Danish painter, Christen Kobke. London has of course, like Paris and other major capitals, already staged events studying artists from Scandinavia’s Golden Age [2]. But this is the first time that such a thorough and important monographic exhibition presents the artist outside of Denmark [3]. This venerable London institution has done a fine job. There are no less than 48 paintings representing the different facets of Kobke’s work in a very complete way : Danish and Italian landscapes, portraits, views of buildings and a few genre scenes. However, unlike the exhibition at the Grand Palais, visitors will not see any drawings. We regret that this important aspect of the artist’s oeuvre is not treated here although it is true that the National Gallery is only a museum of painting, with drawings in London coming under the care of the British Museum.
Setting aside this exception, the exhibition offers an extensive survey of the artist without overlooking any of his famous paintings. Unfortunately, the small and charming Female Nude as well as Morning View of Lake Sortedam from the Ny Carlsberg are not present. Many of the works already exhibited at the Grand Palais in 1984, which included 18 drawings and almost thirty paintings (portraits, views of the citadel, the Frederiksborg castle and its turrets, Italian landscapes) but also rare pieces which are never lent outside of Denmark (early academic nudes, portraits) are brought together here.

2. Christen Købke (1810-1848)
View of One of the Frederiksborg Turrets, c.1834
Oil on canvas - 25.5 x 18.5 cm
Copenhague, David collection
Photo : Pernille Klemp
Huile sur toile

3. Christen Købke (1810-1848)
Northern Drawbridge of the Citadel, 1837
Oil on canvas - 44.2 x 65.1 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : National Gallery
Photo : Pernille Klemp

Most of the paintings – 25 out of the 48 – obviously come from the Staten Museum for Kunst (the national painting museum). A retrospective without the loans from this institution would be impossible. We would also like to point out that Kasper Monrad, chief curator of the museum and a Kobke specialist has supervised the exhibition and written part of the catalogue. Visitors will no doubt notice that the other major Danish museum, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, makes only a small contribution to the show with just two paintings. Three other museums in the capital have also participated in the retrospective : the Hirschsprung collection with three paintings (ill. 1), the David collection (better known for its Islamic art with only one painting, the delightful View of One of the Frederiksborg Turrets, ill. 2) and the Ordrupgaard collection with four paintings ; there are also loans from the provinces in Denmark (Odensee, Randers Niva) and from private collections ; the Louvre, who has developed a remarkable acquisitions policy in Nordic Golden Age art over the last 20 years under the guidance of Elisabeth Foucart-Walter, has lent its only Kobke, Portrait of a Tobacconist. Finally, the National Gallery presents its two Kobke works, one of which is the masterpiece acquired in 1986, Northern Drawbridge of the Citadel (ill. 3).

4. Christen Købke (1810-1848)
View of the Castle at Sunset, 1835
Oil on canvas - 69 x 101 cm
Copenhague, Collection Hirschsprung
Photo : Collection Hirschsprung

5. Christen Købke (1810-1848)
Portrait of the artist’s mother, 1829
Oil on canvas - 23.5 x 19.5 cm
Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland
Photo : Antonia Reeve

Given the rather small format of these canvases, the museum did not have to look for a large space and the exhibition presents the double advantage of not finding itself relegated to the basement of the Sainsbury wing plus it is free to the public. The hang on a white background is extremely pleasant and presentations are organized by theme : Charlottenborg and the early years, the citadel, Frederiksborg, the portraits, Sortedam lake and Blegdammen, finishing with his stay in Italy. As always at the National Gallery, a remarkable film of about 20 minutes helps visitors to learn more about Kobke and Copenhaguen in the first half of the 19th century.
Among the masterpieces on display, the views of the Frederiksborg castle stand out of course (View of the Castle Seen from Monthro Bridge, Staten Museum for Kunst, View of the Castle at Sunset, Hirschsprung Collection, ill. 4) and the amazing studies of the castle turrets (the small View of One of the Turrets from the David collection mentioned above, the large View of the Castle Roof from the Danish Design Museum)… The exhibition then focuses on Kobke’s talent as a portrait artist with paintings which are rarely seen notably that of an old peasant woman from the Randers museum, a portrait of one of his cousins from a private collection and of course the portraits of the painters Sodring (Hirschsprun Collection), Holm and Marstrand (Staten Museum for Kunst), Bendz (National Gallery) as well as portraits of his family : his father, mother (ill. 5), his wife, his sister-in-law and a self-portrait (Staten Museum for Kunst). But the most beautiful works are his views of Copenhaguen (the citadel where the artist lived with his family circa 1800) and the environs (a marvelous View of Dosseringen, Staten Museum for Kunst). He offers us personal visions where light plays a fundamental role and transforms rather commonplace landscapes into magnificent views : a drawbridge (View of the Small Door in the Citadel ; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the National Gallery painting), the courtyard in the bakery (National Galleries of Scotland, Staten Museum for Kunst), an alleyway on the outskirts of Osterbrogade (Staten Museum for Kunst). However, the few paintings done during his stay in Italy (August 1838-September 1840), although at the height of his talent) are a bit disappointing (View of Capri, Ordrupgaar Collection, View of Naples, ill. 6), especially if compared to those by Eckersberg or Hansen who are more innovative and more accomplished technically. Here we would say that the artist did not need this stay in Italy and felt more at home in Denmark where the golden light of day’s end inspired his most captivating paintings.

Although less ambitious than Eckersberg’s painting, more personal and lyrical, imbued above all with a purely Danish light and atmosphere, Kobke’s art is well worth the visit to London this spring or Edinburgh this summer [4].

David Jackson, with Kasper Monrad, Christen Kobke : Danish Master of Light, National Galleries of Scotland, 2010, 128 p., £14.99. ISBN : 9781906270278.

Visitor information : The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN. Tel : +44 (0) 20 7747 2885. Open every day from 10 to 18, Wednesdays until 21. Free entrance.

Antoine Béal, dimanche 2 mai 2010


[1] An article on the Delaroche exhibition is also online.

[2] For London, we quote, Danish Painting : The Golden Age, National Gallery, 1984 or, for Paris, L’âge d’or de la peinture danoise, Grand Palais, 1984-1985, or New York and Los Angeles, Danish Painting : The Golden Age, 1993-1994.

[3] The major retrospective of the Staten Museum for Kunst highlighting his work under the guidance of Kasper Monrad, co-author of the catalogue, dates back to 1996.

[4] The catalogue was published by the National Galleries of Scotland. The same works will be displayed in Edinburgh as in London.

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : La collection Motais de Narbonne. Peintures françaises et italiennes du XVIIe et du XVIIIe siècle

Next article in Exhibitions : Three exhibitions currently showing : Moreau, Dessins français, Impressionnisme