The year was 1981. President Reagan had recently appointed me to serve as the United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark, and I had just moved to Copenhagen to begin my service. The Danish government was strongly objecting to NATO’s decision to place intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Western Europe. It was NATO’s position that this was necessary to counterbalance the threat from the Soviet Union’s arms buildup. Although the issue of arms control was paramount to my mission, as an ambassador, it was also important for me to gain an understanding of the culture of Denmark. Thus, when I was invited to the foremost gallery of contemporary Danish art by the owner, Jacob Asbæk, I was delighted to accept. Jacob became my first Danish art mentor,
and my first acquisitions were contemporary paintings from his gallery. These acquisitions helped to brighten the basement of Rydhave, the official ambassadorial residence. In that basement I created a small gallery of contemporary Danish art. (The basement had previously been converted into a bomb shelter to protect Dr. Werner Best, the infamous Nazi ruler of Denmark during World War II, and who had lived in Rydhave during the German occupation.)
As time went by I fell more and more in love with Danish art, especially that of the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact my enthusiasm resulted in what I am told is the largest collection of Danish art outside Denmark, a total of 128 works representing 63 artists.
My passion for collecting art is not surprising. One could say it is even in my genes. I had the pleasure of being surrounded by great art my whole life. Over the years of their long lives, my late parents assembled one of America’s greatest collections of Impressionist art. The collection was ultimately sold on behalf of the John Loeb Family Charitable Foundation at Christie’s in 1997 for the then-record sum of $95,000,000. Also, my mother’s cousins Philip and Robert Lehman, and my great-grandfather Adolf Lewisohn, gave their respective collections of some of the world’s greatest paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art–and I knew those collections well.
Interestingly enough, it was my great-grandfather Lewisohn who provided me with an ancestral Danish connection. His ancestors lived in the town of Rendsburg until 1758. Rendsburg was then in the duchy of Holstein, of which the Danish King Frederik V was the duke. Rendsburg is now part of Germany, namely the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein.
I had no specific intention of creating a major collection of Danish art. Nevertheless I found
myself spending week-ends after week-ends at Copenhagen’s art museums and galleries.
I soon discovered Denmark’s most outstanding collection of 19th century Danish art, assembled
by the great tobacco merchant, Heinrich Hirschsprung (1836-1908). He systematically collected the art of his contemporaries over the course of 40 years. This remarkable and beautiful collection is housed in a lovely Copenhagen building, known as the Hirschsprung Museum. Mr. Hirschsprung’s commitment to Danish national art was inspirational to me, especially when one considers that most of the other great Danish collectors of that time bought primarily French and German paintings.
I so admired the work of the artists Mr. Hirschsprung collected, that in the years that followed,
I have generally modeled my “acquisition policy” after his choices. I took him as my personal mentor (though he had long since died), deciding that any painter he considered outstanding enough to be in his collection was welcome in mine. His collection is one of the finest and most encyclopedic collections of Danish 19th century art in the world.
I have also been influenced by the late, great art historian, Kirk Varnedoe, (1946-2003), the Curator of Painting at the Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001, and a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. His 1982 Northern Light exhibition, which was mounted at New York City’s Brooklyn Museum and at the Washington DC’s Corcoran Museum, encouraged and inspired me.
Through the years I have also been ably guided by my dear friends at the Bruun Rasmussen art auction house in Copenhagen, Jesper and Birthe Rasmussen, their son Frederik, and Birte Stokholm, head of Rasmussen’s Old Masters Paintings.
In 1984, enamored of the painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (whose stature has since grown exponentially worldwide), I bought my first Vilhelm Hammershøi, named Woman Placing Branches in a Vase on a Table, later to be known as part of the famous “Strandgade Series” (painted when the artist and his wife lived at Strandgade 30, a building still in existence).
At the time, Danish newspapers heralded the purchase as the highest price ever paid for any Danish work of art–1,000,000 Danish kroner–in dollars: $85,000. Hammershøi has grown enormously in prestige and stature, not only in Denmark and Scandinavia, but worldwide.
In 1999 two of my passions crossed: collecting Danish art, and the study of genealogy. I discovered a portrait of a distant relative of mine in a Danish auction catalogue. At that time his identity was not known by the seller nor by the auction house. Seeing the portrait, I was sure I knew the subject of the painting. That was because a photographic reproduction of the painting had been sitting in a place of honor in my living room for years. He was an eminent forebear of mine.
Sure enough, upon further research, the C.A. Jensen painting for sale proved to be that very same ancestor–Joseph Hambro, a critically important part of Denmark’s financial history. He was a key figure in helping to stabilize Denmark’s economy in the early 1800’s after the Napoleonic wars, and subsequently founded the world-famous Hambro Bank in London. Joseph Hambro’s grandfather and my five-times-great grandfather are one and the same. I went on to buy the portrait.
It was the custom in the early 19th century for artists to paint replicas of their own work. Researchers for the material of my catalogue have told me that the portrait I purchased is the original of the three nearly identical Joseph Hambro portraits painted by C.A. Jensen. An almost identical one has for nearly two centuries hung in the Copenhagen Stock Exchange.
Despite the guidance of mentors along the way, in the end I have bought only the paintings I either truly loved or greatly respected. Beyond the thrill of the chase a collector always relishes, I have the pleasure of living daily with these lovely paintings. I am able to retreat from the frenetic pace of New York to the quiet of my home where I can enjoy the stillness and tranquility of these wonderful works of art. In gazing at the quiet of a Vilhelm Kyhn pastoral, or returning the charming glance of P.S.Krøyer’s wife Marie in Bertha Wegmann’s stunning portrait of her, I find myself at peace.
Late in the year 1999 I persuaded art historian Benedicte Hallowell, the Bruun Rasmussen representative in the United States, to take on the coordination of an eventual catalogue raisonné I was planning to produce. I had met her in 1994 when she was helping museum curator Peter Nisbet at Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger, produce an exhibit of a portion of my collection entitled Danish Paintings of the Nineteenth Century. Ms. Hallowell’s organizational ability, artistic background and the fact that she is half-Danish, all convinced me she was the right person for the project.
In turn, Ms. Hallowell engaged three talented Danish art scholars, Elisabeth Fabritius, Suzanne Ludvigsen and Mette Thelle, to whom I am forever grateful, to do the background studies. Dr. Fabritius is currently writing biographies of both Anna Ancher and her husband Michael, along with a book about Anna Ancher’s pastels (whose work she compares with Degas). I am glad to have works by both of the Anchers well represented in my collection. Ms. Ludvigsen’s book on the painter Dankvart Dreyer, His Life and His Art, with a summary in English, is being published by the Society of Publication of Danish Memorials. It is expected to be in print by 2006. Mette Thelle is currently co-authoring a book on the famous flower painter, J.L. Jensen.
Ms. Hallowell, who is also one of this catalogue’s contributors, then enlisted the talents of Professor Glyn Jones, a noted British academician and Danish translator, who has so ably translated the writing of these researchers.
Part of my motivation to publish this catalogue stems from my long-held desire to help the world to know and love Danish art as I do. In 1982 a great opportunity to do just that occurred. That year the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, together with the National Endowment for the Arts funded an international cultural program called “Scandinavia Today.” It was co-sponsored and organized by the American-Scandinavian Foundation located in New York City, as well as by the Smithsonian Institution. It included a wonderful exhibition from all five of the Scandinavian countries. It was my great pleasure to accompany His Royal Highness Prince Henrik of Denmark
(husband of Her Majesty, the Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II) to the United States on a trip to promote Danish culture in general, as well as Danish paintings in particular. We visited New York City, Washington, DC and Minneapolis-St. Paul on behalf of the Scandinavia Today tour. Subsequently Professor Varnedoe, then at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, who organized the exhibit, became the senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
In April 1991, the Honorable Peter Dyvig, then Danish Ambassador to the United States, (and Denmark’s most brilliant diplomat–at various times he also served as ambassador to England, to France and headed the Danish Foreign Service) suggested I give a talk about Danish art at the Smithsonian Institution. A long-time friend of mine, starting from my term in Denmark, he had been asked to provide a recommendation for a speaker to take part in a Smithsonian Resident Associate Progam entitled, “The Golden Age of Scandinavian Art” (moderated by Karen Alexis). I accepted with pleasure. My lecture was called “Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Danish Art: A Personal Collection,” accompanied by a slide show. I spoke of the special cultural conditions and aesthetic ideals, as well as the cultural history which my paintings embody. It was a memorable evening. I will never forget that at a dinner held afterwards at the Danish embassy, Richard Allen, former National Security Adviser to President Reagan, warmly praised my lecture, saying to a reporter, “I learned a great deal from the lecture and I also learned that I ought to go back to school under his [John’s] tutelage. I could get some real substance from him as a mentor.”
During these last several years I have been sponsoring Danish art lectures at the American- Scandinavian Foundation in New York City, inviting such knowledgable speakers as Professor Robert Rosenblum, of the New York University Art Department, Professor Patricia Berman of the Wellesley Art Department in Massachusetts, and Dr. Elisabeth Fabritius, specialist on the Skagen artists’ colony. Their lectures have helped educate the public about the beauty and significance of Danish art. Gradually the art world is awakening to the value of Danish art, which is still not as well known outside of Scandinavia as it should be. It is an art of high quality. Its special cultural conditions and aesthetic ideals are unique, and its artists demonstrably show strength of artistic vision on a par with the artists of the great European nations. It is ironic that Denmark is known worldwide for its glorious Flora Danica porcelain china, for its Jensen silver, for its exciting modern furniture, for its philosophy and literature (such as that of Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen), for its architecture (Arne Jacobsen, Jørn Utzon), and for its classical Bournonville ballet. The one artistic area which has not been fully recognized has been its paintings.
Suzanne Ludvigsen, the art historian who has written a great many of the commentaries as well as the introduction to this catalogue, has observed that in forming my collection I’ve followed a desire to illustrate the historical development of Danish art. More poignantly, she commented that I may have been searching for what might be called “the Danish soul.”
I think she is right.
AMBASSADOR JOHN L. LOEB JR.