The 147 works in the Loeb collection reflect a large part of the history of Danish art over rather more than 200 years, as seen by an American who lived in Copenhagen from 1981 to 1983 as his country’s ambassador.
It is always interesting to study the composition of a private art collection. The choice of pictures and sculptures rarely adheres to the same constrictions observed by museums; the private collector follows his own interests and often makes his selections on the basis of intuition and love, rather than take heed of established opinions. And yet, a pattern almost always unwittingly arises in the constant dialogue between the statement made by the pictures and the collector’s experience of his acquisitions.
The composition of the Loeb collection seems to some extent to have been dictated by the desire to illustrate the general historical development of Danish art, perhaps seen in relation to contemporary intellectual currents outside Denmark. However, the selection of the works in this catalogue also suggest a search both for some human response of a personal nature and, more generally, for what might be called the Danish soul.
On the basis of the first criterion, the paintings in the Loeb catalogue are arranged chronologically according to the years in which it is believed they were painted, artist by artist. A great effort on the part of the researchers has been made to include the historicity of both the painters and their paintings.
The oldest painting in the collection is by Nicolai Abildgaard, showing Alexander and Diogenes, and is presumably from the 1780s; it is a splendid example of the art of the first history painter of note to be trained in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
The most recent work in the Loeb collection is a surrealistic watercolor from 1983, paying minute attention to detail and portraying a little girl in the midst of an enigmatic dream, painted by Henrik Lerfeldt.
The year 1754 saw the founding of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in the baroque palace of Charlottenborg, where it is still based. Besides Abildgaard, one of the first generation of Danish professors was the portraitist Jens Juel, who had also been among the Academy’s earliest pupils. He is represented in the Loeb collection with a fine work painted sometime during the 1780s.
C. W. Eckersberg, who became a professor in the Academy in 1818, was of major significance for the development of the Copenhagen School. The collection includes a beautiful washed drawing executed during the artist’s student days in Paris, as well as one of his favorite subjects, a naval frigate under sail.
Two of Eckersberg’s contemporaries, the landscape artist J.P. Møller, and the flower painter J. L. Jensen, are represented in the collection. There are two paintings by Møller, one of which at one time belonged to King Christian VIII, and twelve flower and fruit pieces by Jensen. This exquisite collection within the collection is remarkable partly because Jensen’s oeuvre is only now being fully examined within the history of Danish art.
Works by several of Eckersberg’s most gifted pupils, of whom Martinus Rørbye, Constantin Hansen, Christen Købke and Wilhelm Marstrand deserve special mention, also form part of the Loeb collection. There is an 1836 painting by J.P. Møller’s pupil, the landscape artist Frederik Sødring, who found his motif at Rønneby waterfall at Blekinge in Sweden, which is of particular interest because a fragment of this picture is reflected in the mirror in Christen Købke’s famous portrait of Sødring which hangs in the Hirschsprung Museum in Copenhagen.
Eckersberg’s great interest in classical marine painting left its traces, though we find a more romantic slant in the work of painters such as Anton Melbye and C. F. Sørensen, both of whom are represented here-the latter with a lively plein air study.
The painter Johan Petersen, perhaps better known in the United States than in Denmark, was more influenced by Eckersberg’s style of painting than was the case with Melbye and Sørensen. However, this influence came only indirectly through his own teacher, Carl Dahl, who had been taught by Eckersberg. There is an example of this in a beautiful ship portrait of an American frigate at anchor, presumably painted in 1861.
Two model paintings in the collection witness the teaching of Eckersberg. One by L. A. Smith of a girl seen from behind, standing before a mirror, is painted in the presence of the master himself. Eckersberg’s version of the motif is one of the treasures of the Hirschsprung Museum. The other painting of a young girl undressing, by Joel Ballin, is also the result of a session where the teacher and several other pupils were present. At this occasion Eckersberg also painted his version of the motif.
One of Eckersberg’s colleagues at the Academy was Professor J. L. Lund. Together with the first real art historian in Denmark, the influential N. L. Høyen, Lund was of great importance to a group of young landscape artists belonging to the “Golden Age of Danish Painting.” Outstanding among these were P. C. Skovgaard, J. Th. Lundbye, Dankvart Dreyer, and Vilhelm Kyhn. With the exception of Dreyer, they are all well represented in the Loeb collection.
N. L. Høyen made himself the advocate and passionate spokesman for a national pictorial art. His thoughts on Danishness in an art bereft of foreign interference finally led to his famous lecture, On the Conditions for the Development of a Scandinavian National Art, which he delivered to the Scandinavian Alliance in Copenhagen in 1844. He said that it was not only the Danish landscape that was to be discovered, praised, and painted; the life of the ordinary people was also to be portrayed with emphasis on their unique national character. Such was the aim of painters like Julius Exner, Christen Dalsgaard, Carl Bloch, and to some extent Otto Bache, all of whom appear in the Loeb collection.
The painter Hans Smidth went his own way. So did the 15-years-younger L. A. Ring, whom art history assigns to the generation of realists. Both executed restrained, unadorned representations of landscapes and everyday life, the former mainly in Jutland, the latter in Zealand. Especially the works by L. A. Ring are some of the best art in the collection.
National romantic portrayals of the countryside and slightly idealized genre pictures, of which there are a number in the Loeb collection, disappeared from Danish art at the end of the century, as Høyen’s influence waned. Around 1880, the era dubbed the “Modern Breakthrough” began. Characterized by a degree of realism hitherto virtually unseen, together with a free and virtuoso use of the brush and a resplendent treatment of light and color, these paintings are mainly inspired by French art. This new work is plentifully represented in the Loeb collection, with outstanding works by artists including Bertha Wegmann, Anna and Michael Ancher, and P.S. Krøyer. Works deserving special mention by Krøyer are his loving portrait of his young bride Marie (1889) and his magnificent self-portrait, painted a good ten years later on the beach at Skagen.
Other works that must be highlighted are by Krøyer’s gifted pupils Harald Slott-Møller and Vilhelm Hammershøi. The 1888 painting by Slott-Møller is a charming, light-filled painting of two fully dressed young women paddling in a shallow stretch of sea. The remarkable loner in Danish art, Hammershøi, obviously a favorite of Loeb’s, is represented by no less than nine paintings. Three exquisite works executed in the artist’s apartment in Strandgade in Copenhagen around the turn of the century are truly memorable.
A handful of contemporary paintings tell us a little about what was taking place in Danish artistic life in the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, we find two works by the COBRA painter Egill Jacobsen, a powerful iron sculpture by Robert Jacobsen, and a dazzling portrayal of a dancer by Hans Voigt Steffensen. Mention must also be made of a work by the versatile artist Kurt Trampedach, a poetical watercolor of his son Jonas, and Peter Bonnén’s small two-part bronze sculpture with its remarkable magical aura.
There is a certain rather unusual quality about the Loeb collection, because a substantial number of works in his collection are from a period in Danish art in which no foreign collector previously appears to have been interested. These are the national romantic landscapes so beautifully exemplified by five late works by Vilhelm Kyhn, and genre art such as Christen Dalsgaard’s charming portrayal of a very young girl in national dress, as she writes a letter.
Vilhelm Kyhn’s works, with motifs from the whole of Denmark, are compelling because they sprang from the artist’s deep love of his native land and because throughout his long life he fought to combat foreign influence on Danish painting, along the lines of the art historian N. L. Høyen’s vision.
Artists in Denmark in the decades following 1850 were divided into two mutually antagonistic parties, consisting of followers of Høyen on one side and those with a broader European horizon on the other, the two groups popularly known as the Blonds and the Brunettes.
Marstrand, Constantin Hansen, P. C. Skovgaard, Dalsgaard, Exner, Bloch, and Kyhn were among those belonging to the Blondes, made up of loyal disciples of the Eckersberg tradition and the “nationals.” (As a young man, Otto Bache was attracted by the new French movements, but he was never able to disengage his art from N. L. Høyen’s influence.) There are examples from both the Blonds and the Brunettes in the Loeb collection, but it is remarkable that the national, Blond painters are particularly well represented. In the text accompanying Christen Dalsgaard’s Young Girl Writing of 1871—and repeated by him with three variants, one of which was exhibited in the World Fair at Paris in 1878—a comprehensive account has been given of the French and Danish views on the manner of painting in Danish national romantic art. (Dalsgaard’s picture was one of the quite small number of Danish pictures to be singled out and praised, but also sharply criticized as an example of the overall Danish contribution, by critic Paul Mantz in the newspaper Le Temps.)
In his Kunstens Historie i Danmark (The History of Art in Denmark), written between 1901 and 1907, Karl Madsen, who had started as a painter and in time became an art historian and museum director, gently and subtly restored to the national romantic painters the respect due them, explaining that at that time critics abroad were not at all interested in any Danish art after Eckersberg— who had studied in Paris—and his perhaps most talented pupil, Christen Købke. Karl
Madsen believed that the reason for the negative view of Danish paintings held by French critics in 1878 was to be found in the fact that Dalsgaard’s young girl’s letter was addressed to the wrong recipient. You had to be Danish to understand its message:
For us Danes, despite all the formal shortcomings, it tells with understanding and feeling of the special quality and beauty of our nature, of the joys and sorrows of the people; it tells both of tender, wistful dreams and of determined efforts to reach lofty goals; it also tells all the wise and beautiful thoughts of a great and rich artistic soul.
It has been said that art is ultimately only what one human being confides to another.
The composition of the Loeb collection shows an unusual sensitivity to the confidences shared in the national art from the second half of the 19th century.
This receptiveness to an erstwhile statement on the Danish soul bears witness to an accomplishment worthy of an American ambassador to Denmark.