Christen Købke at the National Gallery

When I set out to see Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery recently — on the day before it closed, in fact, although it’s now moving to Edinburgh, where it remains until 3 October 2010 — the name ‘Kobke’ rang no loud bells, so I assumed that I’d never seen this early nineteenth century artist’s work before.

So much for the reliability of memory, eh? Although I didn’t post about it at the time — although I can’t quite reconstruct the crisis of confidence that prevented that 10,000 word draft getting as far as actual publication, unpublished it remains — in truth I could hardly tear myself away from the Royal Academy’s extravagant, eye-opening Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830, the late Robert Rosenblum’s final major gift to art-historical revisionism. I know I must have visited that show half a dozen times, perhaps more. And while the the slightly disorienting array of treasures there included work by David, Reynolds, Houdon, Zoffany, Goya and Ingres, as well as dozens of less stellar figures, one of the pictures that really stood out was, of all things, a portrait by Christen Købke himself.

Painted when the artist was only 22 years old, Købke’s Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sodring (1832) is an extraordinary, lucid, arresting little work. Across its surface, the oil has been applied as thin as tempera. The details of that pot of trailing ivy, the enamel snuffbox, upturned brush, oh-so-practical improvised chair-cover and meticulous sketches of the Roman Forum are all so ‘real’ as to seem almost hallucinogenic. None of this, though, is achieved at the expense either of warmth — the coolness of those blue-grey tonalities notwithstanding, could anyone doubt that these two young men were friends? — or indeed of structure. Everything in the relationship between the panels of the door behind the figure, the round mirror over his head, the sheets of pinned-up paper and the slope of that resting body, all apparently so casual, even proleptically ‘photographic’, has surely been calculated with precision. For how else could it be the case that the viewer’s glance runs round and round, weighing up this and that, wondering at the balance of colour and tone — not really caught by the digital image to which I’ve linked above — incredulous that this initially rather informal-looking keepsake should, in fact, turn out to be a work of such slightly weird, distinctive brilliance?

I recount this unremarkable little narrative as a mild sort of protest at Brian Sewell’s assertion, in the course of his own rather different review of the National Gallery show, that Købke is ‘an engaging nobody’, whose work it is ‘cruel’ to show in proximity to ‘great masters’ like Constable and Ingres. Waldemar Januszczak didn’t think much of Købke either. Other critics were more generous, or perhaps simply less attentive — who can say?

But just as I don’t entirely agree with Sewell about Købke’s ‘directness of observation, of camera-cutting and the accidents of casual composition’ — if the composition is indeed truly ‘casual’ rather than apparently so, why is it, then, that these ‘accidents’ all work out so well? — I don’t agree with him about Købke is a ‘nobody’. In my own experience, even in typically Rosenblum-curated crowd of absolute masterpieces mixed up with charming or simply freakish also-rans, Købke’s little picture proved more than able to assert its own cogent argument. Or to put it another way, while it is true, of course, that Købke’s portrait stood out in part as an oddity, that it was clearly not part of the any of the schools more widely represented in the 2007 Royal Academy show, and that if one sets out to chart a narrative of art history in which Ingres is the major destination, then Købke is never going to be more than minor detour — well, why not stray from that narrative occasionally, though, and engage with the pictures instead?

In any event, after my 2007 experience at the Royal Academy, one might have hoped that I would have remembered Købke’s name. Yet knowing as little as I did about Danish history, let alone Danish art, where was the conceptual structure into which this new-found genius could be slotted? It didn’t exist. Because that, in the end, is the point of those inherited narratives, however constraining they may be — they help us order and make sense of experience. Without them, we struggle to hold on to visual memory. Things slip away. Thus it was, then, that I forgot Købke’s name, although not his portrait of his friend, until I was confronted with it once again in the National Gallery a couple of weeks ago.

I won’t forget Købke again. Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light was, quite simply, one of the best exhibitions I have seen for years — an exhibition fit, in its own way, to be set alongside this or this — those small but perfect exhibitions in which an artist previously assumed to be somehow ‘minor’ is given the context, attention and space necessary for the demonstration of absolute greatness.

Intimacy of scale is, admittedly, part of what was so affecting about the exhibition. The show, curated by David Jackson, is easily contained within the National Gallery’s Sunley Rooms. It includes about 48 paintings out of more than 300 the artist left at the time of his death in 1848, aged 37 years. The portraits are almost invariably images of Købke’s relatives, close friends or near neighbours. All but a handful of the landscapes were painted within easy walking-distance of the artist’s various homes in Copenhagen. Most of the pictures themselves are small. One exception — Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle, with View of Lake, Town and Forest, c. 1834-5 — a massive aerial landscape painted from a viewpoint so literally vertiginous that my companion at the exhibition actually felt giddy standing next to it — was apparently intended for his parents’ dining room.

Køkbke, the modest and unassuming son of a successful baker, left plenty of correspondence, from which it is apparent that he wasn’t much preoccupied with intellectual questions, that his Christian faith was profound and central, that he respected his teachers and cherished his friends, positively adored his supportive, affectionate family, and also that — one short trip to Italy notwithstanding — he was perfectly at home his own particular corner of Denmark, a highly specific time and a place catalogued lovingly in what now seems a timeless body of work.

For those of us who come to Købke’s oeuvre bashfully admitting that we know virtually nothing of Danish history, the exemplary exhibition catalogue — well-written, fully illustrated, inexpensive — proves informative, particularly with respect to Denmark’s so-called Golden Age. Some may be surprised, for instance, to discover that this notably productive phase in Denmark’s story was prefaced by the devastation of Copenhagen by the British navy, the destruction of its own previously world-class navy fleet, blockade and resultant famine, national bankruptcy and the loss of Norway, while the Golden Age itself was characterised by absolutist monarchical rule, censorship and the suppression of civil liberties, only coming to an end c. 1848-50 when Denmark embarked on the first of two wars with Germany over Schleswig and Holstein, apparently a ‘definitive national trauma’ from which the Danes never really recovered.

This, then, is the context for all Købke’s tranquil, idyllic scenes from everyday life, those gentle depictions of familiar faces, the shared jokes, the largely unproblematic piety. At worst, Købke suffered from occasional digestive troubles. Is it reading too much into this paradox to suggest that part of the ‘problem’ with Købke is that he refuses to conform to our unspoken romantic-cum-modernist certitude whereby the artist, if he is to achieve greatness, must surely be a rebel, a tortured soul, a critic of his own life and context? Possibly.  All the same, it’s fun to spend at least a few seconds contemplating how a different sort of author might have slotted Købke into T.J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. Whatever else he may have been, Købke was certainly no Pissaro, any more than he was a David or a Malevich. Whether one regrets this is, of course, rather a different question.

Would there have been scope for a slightly more expansive exhibition, in which the influences on Købke’s work could have been explored with greater thoroughness? Perhaps so. Købke’s training started young, even by early nineteenth century standards. Købke was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, just a short walk from his home within the Citadel, in 1822 at the age of 11 years. Here he studied mathematics, anatomy, history, art history and mythology, as well as drawing both from casts and, eventually, live models. When the extremely elderly artist C. A. Lorentzen, in whose studio had intitally Købke studied — and who had tutored Caspar David Friedrich during his time at the Academy — died in 1828, Købke was taken up by C. W. Eckersberg, who had in turn been taught by Jacques-Louis David during his time in Paris c. 1811. These are the sort of conjunctions which help fix Købke in some sort of art-historical armature, the better for us to see his work from all possible angles.

The main point about Eckersberg, however, was his devotion to open-air painting, and in particular, to the creation of smallish, super-realistic, almost ‘photographic’ landscapes, framed apparently casually but at the same time so intensely observed as to make an impact that was anything but casual. To create these images, Eckersberg used a device not unlike Durer’s drawing-machine, framing the view ‘artificially’ so that the artist was free to concentrate wholly on depicting its detail. Købke may, perhaps, have done this too. The intention, though, was considerably more than quasi-mechanical reproduction, since Eckersberg further encouraged his pupils to use such methods in order to ‘reach a greater appreciation of the underlying ideal, or “fundamental image” that emanated from its divine source,’ as the catalogue puts it. The idea was ‘to seek the eternal in the mundane’. It was precisely this tension between verisimilitude and idealism which, at its greatest, gave the visual art of Denmark’s Golden Age its special energy. Eckersberg, by all accounts a charismatic teacher as well as an important artist in his own right, seems to have done much to establish this approach. It would have been interesting to have seen more of his work, and that of his other pupils, in order to gauge precisely what was distinctive in Købke’s distillation from his general inheritance.

But then there was so much to learn, so much to see and simply to enjoy in those two long rooms — why ask for more? Not least, there was the shock of realising that Købke was one of those very few painters whose landscapes and portraits are equally arresting, persuasive and indeed often moving.

The exhibition opens with three portraits. Two of these are images of Købke’s parents. Part of the fascination here is tracing the extent to which Købke’s already prodigious skill in applying paint had improved between the portrait of his mother (1829) and the portrait of his father (1835) — but both are, each in their own way, amazing paintings — those weathered, lived-in faces emerging out of a field of featureless greyish-black space, collars painted with some care both for what they said about the sitters but perhaps also for the sheer joy of painting white fabric against a dark background, but with virtually all the emphasis on those blue eyes, slightly creased foreheads, set mouths. These are two highly individual faces, presumably, that Købke knew better than any others, yet examined here with a combination of intensity, affection and respect that inevitably sets up comparisons with, say, the work of Rembrandt or even Freud — comparisons from which Købke emerges with considerable credit, young though he was at the time.

The other portrait at the beginning of the exhibition is that of Købke himself, painted c. 1833, when he was only 23 years old. Here the paint is applied so delicately that one can almost feel the flush of those red cheeks, the slightly furrowing of that unlined brow as the artist concentrates completely on what he’s doing, his slightly oily post-adolescent skin, a bit of stubble — and also a sort of unguarded seriousness, a lack of irony, a refusal to pose or project. Other artists would, perhaps, have assumed some sort of persona here, disguising themselves in fancy-dress or the striking of historically resonant attitudes. With Købke, though, there’s simply a young man staring very intently at his own image, trying to get it right. And as with Palmer’s self-portrait, there is, somehow, something terribly likeable about this apparently uncomplicated, frank, perhaps just slightly wistful image. Købke was not much preoccupied with worldly success, fame or glittering prizes. This is perhaps just as well, as he achieved so very little by way of obvious success during his short lifetime, although he is now recognised as perhaps the greatest painter Denmark has yet produced.

As for his other portraits, they share the common Købke trait of looking entirely casual, simple and artless — concealing as they do so a remarkable level of anatomical knowledge, grasp of perspective, skill in applying paint and an unfailing sensitivity to tone and colour, with the result that this most self-effacing of artists directs all our attention to the subject — his or her mood and manner as much as the accidents of external appearance. This seems to be the case no matter who Købke was portraying. For although Købke did in general confine himself to painting family, friends and neighbours, within the ambit of Danish bourgeois society of the early nineteenth century, all human life is here.

Købke’s portrait of Ida Thiele, the eighteen month-old daughter of a famous Danish art historian — the artist apparently got her to sit still by letting her draw with his chalks, hence the brilliantly-observed look of utter concentration animating the little girl’s pudgy face — is a totally convincing vision of a toddler. Indeed, one can practically see her mother fingering those golden curls and quietly thanking God that her baby’s hair has finally started to grow properly, adjusting the girl’s dress, brushing chalk off it and shaking her head at the depths of men’s impracticality. Yet it would also be a rather wonderful painting even if one could see it as nothing but abstract pattern-making. The tension between the smouldering red of the dress, for instance, and the dove-coloured background, echoed in the red of the flushed cheeks and little mouth and to some extent picked up by the warmth of the table, is pure magic, as is the astonishingly flat white-yellow of the hair at the top of the girl’s head, set off against that dove-coloured nothingness, while there’s something in the proportion of empty space around the child that seems to make her push forward and out, that seems to make the pale forehead and cobalt-blue eyes inescapable. It’s a magical little painting, all the better for its lack of bombast. There are plenty of 20 foot by 20 foot canvases lining the walls of major public collection that exert considerably less force.

But then the same point could be made about a number of Købke’s portraits. His painting of his relative-by-marriage D. Christen Schifter Fielberg (c. 1834), a lieutenant in the Danish navy, is another picture which looks simple, but turns out to be so much more than some casual reflection of the sitter’s appearance. Of course it is, by any standard, a thoroughly competent portrait. The 27 year-old junior officer must have been pleased at how well Købke captured the elegance of his uniform, the glint of those brass buttons and sparkling epaulettes, the radiance of the red upturned collar and cuffs against the dull dark blue of his tunic, his slim figure and the dandyish way in which he pulls that single kid glove across his outstretched hand. Would the naval lieutenant have noticed, though, I wonder, the suggestion of not entirely attractive arrogance which is somehow also present in the portrait? Fielberg was apparently in the habit of treating Købke with what the catalogue terms ‘a degree of sarcastic condescension’, a revelation that somehow comes as no surprise to anyone who has looked for a while as this portrait.

Sadder is the revelation that in 1851 Fielberg was brought home from London in a state of insanity, and died shortly thereafter. On learning this, I was reminded indirectly of that other favourite image from Citizens and Kings, Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s portrait of the heroically doomed Richard St George Marsergh St George, that great exemplar of the Gothick who in 1777 during the American War of Independence survived having ‘a considerable amount of his head shot away’ followed by battlefield trepanning, only to be murdered by Irish rebels on his estate in Co. Cork in February 1798. The famous image of St George shows him as very much the man of refined, Romantic sensibilities, leaning on the tomb of his beloved wife in a sort of swoon of unstaunchable grief, two years before his own murder. There is slightly more about the painting here. In any event, the genius of the St George portrait lies in part in the way in which, since we cannot avoid remembering St George’s appalling end, it somehow seems to be there in the painting, for all the world as if the doomed officer were in fact lamenting the inevitable price of his own great bravery as much as those earlier losses and sorrows. And by a similar token, the genius of the Fielberg portrait lies in the way in which it hints at what the painter himself never lived to learn about Fielberg’s eventual death. What’s going on under that carefully-styled facade, the well-cut tunic, the formal manners and slightly sharp-edged teasing? Købke cannot have known, but once we know, confronted again with this picture, we cannot help remembering.

It says something about the intensity of Købke’s portrayal that the image he created can somehow bear this added weight. Yet dozens of his portraits are, in their own way, as strong as the Fielberg one. Could there possibly be a more sympathetic evocation of the genuine beauty of old age — the slightly ironic smile, the look of tolerant bemusement, the dignity and hard-won grace — than Købke’s portrait of Inger Margrethe Høyen (1832)? Or could there be a more engaging, relaxed-looking, totally convincing portrait of a highly opinionated yet good-humoured young man than the Portrait of the Artist’s Cousin’s Son, P. Ryder (1848)? Infants, old ladies, ancient mariners, pretty girls, naval officers, artists, peasants — to all these subjects Købke brought a warm, perceptive curiosity. His world, some critics are very quick to complain, was a small one. Well, perhaps so — but within it, the variety of human experience he was able to reflect is even now astonishing.

Under the circumstances, it should not come as a surprise that Købke’s landscapes share with his portraits the tendency to camouflage prodigious technical skill, acute observation and profound emotional engagement under an illusion of entirely unproblematic simplicity. View from the Loft of the Grain Store at the Bakery in the Citadel (1831), for instance, at first glance might appear to be the early nineteenth century equivalent of a casual photograph. It’s a view of the artist’s sister walking up a ramp into the Bakery on what appears to be a warm summer day, watched by two little boys. She is knitting as she walks, wrapped up in her own thoughts. A huge tree outside provides shade. It’s a quiet, informal, in some ways totally inconsequential scene. Yet for all that, it’s also strangely powerful. Only when one starts to pick apart the reasons for this does Købke’s brilliance become apparent. For one thing, the composition is a minor miracle of perspective. How many artists alive today could, even with the doubtful advantage of painting from a photograph, render the tilt of that ramp with such offhand confidence? Then there’s the composition. If one forgets for a moment what any of the shapes and areas of colour are meant to signify — girl, tree, doorway — then the painting becomes a magical balancing-act of line and form, colour and tone, as satisfying in its relationships — e.g. the edge at which the red door-frame meets the greens painted over red at the right of the composition, absolutely unnerving in its intensity — as the better sort of colour-field abstraction.

But then it works at pretty much every other possible level, too. Købke was an astonishingly capable painter of atmosphere — the temperature and humidity there in the air, the reasons that light looks the way it does — in the same way that Winslow Homer, or indeed some of those nineteenth century Russian landscape painters about whose work we in Britain continue to remain so ignorant, were capable painters of atmosphere. Looking at the View from the Loft of the Grain Store, we can practically feel the closeness of that slightly humid shade. There’s a sort of sympathetic affection in the way in which the artist observes his silent younger sister, lost in her daydreams.

In the midst of all this, though, it would be possible to forget something else of interest about Købke, relevant perhaps to all his Citadel landscapes. To most of us, today, the View from the Loft of the Grain Store seems a very peaceful, buccolic, rural image. Yet the Citadel itself, where Købke’s family lived for many years and where the artist spent much of his life, was by no means an unproblematic haven of tranquil country living. It was, in fact, a smallish fortification set at the edge of Copenhagen. Militarily redundant following Denmark’s humiliating bombardment by the British during the Napoleon wars, it remained a self-enclosed world — quite a crowded one, too, housing about 600 soldiers and their families, as well as civilian workers and convict labour-gangs, a church and a mill, as well as the Købke family’s bakery. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Citadel cannot have been the most pleasant place to live. The exhibition catalogue characterises it as a ‘lawless and insanitary pigsty’. Thus it’s well worth noting that for all their supposed ‘photographic’ quality, Købke’s paintings of the place tell virtually nothing of its squalid, crowded, sordid side, transposing its more wholesome facts — the bridges, the trees, the long views — into an idiom of rural idyll, forgetting all the rest. Here, then, is yet another thing about Købke which turns out not to be simple at all. And what’s more, the deception taking place here — ‘art’ in its old, perhaps better sense — makes me like him all the more.

Købke went on to create a language of landscape that was — for all of Eckersberg’s undoubted influence, as well as the alternative influence exerted by Købke’s sometime friend the Danish art historian and pioneer of Romantic nationalism, Niels Lauritz Høyen — very much his own. What characterises it is clarity, big skies which unabashedly occupy so great a proportion of each canvas, a Constable-type obsession with the facts of weather, startlingly powerful colour and the ability to imply absolutely enormous amounts of space even on those many occasions where practicality, or perhaps simply poverty, restricted the artist to painting in a very small format indeed. At his best, the work takes on that slightly hallucinogenic stillness one sometimes finds in paintings by Vermeer, de Hooch or those other great Dutch painters of the seventeenth century whose work Købke must have known well. In general, it isn’t ‘about’ much, although there are moments at which Danish patriotic themes — that Danish flag fluttering slightly listlessly in the late afternoon light in the famous View from Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake Looking towards Nørrebro (1838), the various paintings of Frederiksborg Castle — are carefully moved to the foreground.

Ultimately, though, one can’t help but think that this degree of obvious didacticism didn’t really suit Købke’s painting, strongest when it was at its most subtle. The greatest landscapes in the exhibition are, I’d have thought, these: the tiny View from the Citadel Ramparts across the Moat and Langelinie towards the Limekiln (c. 1833) and the massive View of a Street in Osterbro outside Copenhagen (1836). No small part of the purely personal appeal of the former, I should confess right away, is that it looks so eerily like a painting of the north Norfolk coast — there’s something about the flatness of the horizon, the absolutely clear light, the reflections in the very still water that brings to mind Wells-next-the-Sea. And while I can understand that this affinity might not bring immediate boundless delight to absolutely everyone out there, all the same, there’s still enough light, space and tranquility packed into this little painting as to render it entirely unforgettable.

In contrast, I don’t suppose that Osterbro, that red pantile roof notwithstanding, looks like any place but Osterbro, which is surely the great point about it — along with the masterful composition, it should go almost without saying by this point, the pitch-perfect colour, the apparently effortless perspective and so forth. Still, here the greater scale allows us a an abundance of fictive ‘observational’ pleasures, which should not be valued lightly. We can, for instance, peer into open windows, watch a married couple strolling in the shade or some housewives gossiping in the sunshine. We can satisfy our curiosity regarding pantiles, cattle or fencing. We can revel in the incidental detail of which real life is composed. It is perhaps only the dynamism of the perspective sweep which makes this anything other than a perfect masterpiece of the Golden Age of Dutch painting created two hundred years too late, but also — happily — created one hundred years too early to be a painting ‘about’ colour, or light, or about painting itself. And for that, too, I admit I am slyly grateful.

In 1838, in any event, Købke travelled to Italy. He did so slightly unwillingly. He did not particularly want to leave his wife, his family or friends behind. His traumatically unreliable digestion must have baulked at the prospect of Italian food, which most eighteenth and nineteenth century visitors regarded as uncontroversially repulsive, if not actually downright dangerous. And in our own time, it has become conventional to regard this most Danish of artists’ journey away from his native soil as an absolute disaster for his art, ironing out too many of what might be seen as his eccentricities or even naivieties — rendering him, in a word, less surprising, and hence less good.

Let us, however, dispense with the lazy bigotry whereby le douanier Rousseau is inevitably superior to Reynolds. Italy, as the exhibition makes clear, opened Købke’s eyes to a whole new world of colour and light effects, a more obviously dramatic topography, a different range of historical and emotional allusions. He produced good work there, too. His Forum in Pompeii not only does all the ‘formal’ things that Købke paintings tend to do, but also contrasts the distinctive white-hot skies of the Kingdom of Naples with a kind of welled-up lurking melancholy — look at that literally umbrous shadow blocking our way into the painting — that’s all Købke’s own. His View of Marina Piccola in Capri (1839) shows him exploring parts of his box of colours previously untried. None of this, I think, was a bad thing.

The problem is that we simply cannot know what the journey might have meant for his Danish work in the longer term. Having returned from Italy in 1840, he continued to paint, producing work based on his Italian journey and decorative schemes for domestic interiors, more portraits of family members and friends as well as some very loose, increasingly bold landscape studies, these latter perhaps simply for his own enjoyment. His career, however, failed to take off. His Romantic nationalist friends may rather have disapproved of his Italian sojourn. His paying customers may have wished he’d stayed longer in Italy. Perhaps no one wanted beautiful little pictures like Study of Clouds over the Sea (1840-45) which may have been what Købke himself truly wanted to paint.

In any event Købke died, as we have seen, in 1848, that international year of revolution, at the age of 37 years. He left a youngish widow— she herself died a year later — and two young children. The cause of his death was pneumonia. There are ironies in the fact that an artist whose work is so full of sky, light and air ended up drowning in the intolerable closeness of his own failing lungs.

In the year before, Købke had been rejected — ten votes to seven, with two abstentions — from membership of the prestigious Academy where he himself had studied. Illness and death in his family, straitened financial circumstances and professional failure may have made his last years rather sad ones. And for all his religious faith, he appears to have had moments, if not of doubt exactly, then of uncertainty as to where he fitted into the Divine plan, whether he was truly doing what his Maker required of him. So perhaps, under that seemingly untroubled surface, there may have been marginally more anguish, complexity and difficulty than was easily apparent.

We are left, though, not with Købke himself, about whom we can only know a limited amount, but rather with the astonishing body of work that he created during his short working life. ‘Rediscovered’ first by the Danish Fine Arts Society (Kunstforeningen) in 1884, then by a major biography in 1893, within a generation or two Købke had found his place at the summit of Denmark’s Golden Age. It helped that his paintings — with their apparently arbitrary cropping, unremarkable subject-matter and general ‘photographic’ quality, appeared to speak directly to modern concerns, just as their lack of obvious literary, symbolic or doctrinal baggage sometimes seems to render them effectively timeless. At their best, they have that slightly hermetic quality one finds in the work of Vermeer or Chardin, where the sheer absence of incident somehow creates a space into the which the viewer can pour — well, absolutely anything, really. And since the flattering illusion of infinite choice is cherished by modern viewers, Købke’s pictures now generally hold up very well indeed.

It is true, of course, that Købke isn’t a loud, declamatory painter. His ambitions were modest. He wasn’t much good when it came to self-promotion. Having worked out early in life the sort of work that interested him, he didn’t bother with grandeur, universality, breadth, bombast, ‘greatness’, the self-imposed status of world-historical figure. He is also, even now, not terribly famous, at least amongst people who have done their art history degrees in Britain or America.

For some critics, of course, this sort of thing constitutes proof-positive of inevitable ‘minor painter’ status. For such critics, even a short exhibition in the National Gallery’s smallish Sunley Rooms is probably too much for such a featherweight talent to withstand. For them, Købke’s proper role is safely within a group of painters who were doomed to ply their trade in what those critics regard as a slightly peripheral country during a poorly-understood episode in its wholly marginal history. Købke is no Ingres, no Friedrich, not even a Constable, for heaven’s sake. I suspect they would like him to go back to the footnotes, where they are free to ignore him at will.

In contrast, other critics may perhaps welcome the chance to encounter what is apparently a first-rate selection of Købke’s work, skilfully curated and sensitively displayed, with a first-rate catalogue there to fill in the contextual gaps. They may also detect in Købke’s ‘minor painter’ credentials the stuff of genuine greatness. Not least, can it really be true that everything in this world that’s worthy of attention, enjoyment or admiration is in fact large-scale, loud, self-aggrandizing?

Ultimately, as with pretty much everything else in life, this probably does come down to the stuff of personal preference. Leaving the Købke exhibition, I was reminded, perhaps slightly whimsically, of a comment here at Fugitive Ink, contributed a reader who did not share my dissatisfaction about the new galleries at the Museum of London. As the commentator put it, ‘For me the new galleries reflect London as it is — chaotic, random, noisy and full of visual, auditory and tactile stimulation. That is modern life and the clock cannot be turned back, however desirable that may seem to some oldies.’ The point is expressed with admirable clarity and may, for all I know, constitute an entirely mainstream point of view.

Yet for all that, all the things about Købke that might strike such a commentator as failures — his lack of randomness, the silence in his paintings, the stubborn reluctance to provide any obvious profusion of sensory stimulation — are what I love most about his work. So perhaps in the end, once we have dispensed with those claims about the ‘photographic’ or casual quality of his art, this may be the one thing that is indeed truly modern about Køkbke. Having grown up amongst the immediate consequences of historical drama, noise, violence, random destruction, swift historical change and the challenges of burgeoning international conflict, he turned away from all that, and chose to spend his short life creating a different sort of world, in which silence, calm and kindness still had a place. And for that, as much as anything else, Købke has now secured for himself a place in the permanent collection of painters whose work truly matters to me.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Christen Købke at the National Gallery

  1. This is excellent. The other reviews you linked to seem phoned in by comparison. Brava. Since I’m quite unlikely to see this, do you have any thoughts on the catalog?

    On a related note, In Another Light: Danish Painting in the Nineteenth Century is worth the investment for the treatment of Vilhelm Hammershøi alone. Denmark produced some fine painters.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Franklin. As for the catalogue, though — here — I’d hoped I’d already made the point that it’s ‘well-written, fully illustrated [and] inexpensive’ — in other words, very highly recommended indeed.

    Thanks too for alerting me to In Another Light, which is very tempting.

  3. Indeed, you did. I feel foolish for letting that slip. I attribute it to my marveling at “distinctive white-hot skies of the Kingdom of Naples,” followed by the only appropriate use of “literally” I’ve seen in months. I’m on assignment this week, and it’s good to look over some savory prose in advance of putting my own together as a reminder of what one might accomplish given enough intelligence and craft. Thank you.

  4. Franklin, I hope you didn’t take that as a reproach — certainly it was intended more as an early morning, pre-6 am, pre-coffee conversation with myself — ‘Oh dear, did I forget to put that in? No, for once I remembered. There it is. Let’s celebrate a rare victory for efficiency here at Fugitive Ink,’ etc. Not least, it’s such a remarkably good catalogue that we should all draw attention to its merits as frequently as possible. If more exhibitions produced affordable, information-packed, well-illustrated and brilliantly-written catalogues, our world would be a marginally better place.

    As for ‘white-hot skies’, though, the credit ought to go to Mr Købke, as it was very much his paintings that reminded me of the Neopolitan weather in all its magnificently excessive glory.

  5. In case you missed it, Nige was also impressed:

    http://nigeness.blogspot.com/2010/05/cristen-koebke.html

    Case closed, mind opened!

  6. How on earth did I miss that, Gareth?

    Not only did Nige produce a brilliant, concise yet very informative review — which he did — but he also mentioned my beloved Samuel Palmer! Just think, I could have gone back to see the Købke show half a dozen times had I noticed Nige’s words of wisdom in mid-May. ‘Self-reproach’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Sigh!

  7. A weekend in Copenhagen sounds in order…

  8. Absolutely, Gareth.

    Not least, on a day like this in London, who wouldn’t want to be here instead?

  9. Peter

    If one were to seek out a ‘small world” painter, it would have be Vermeer. Yet he is revered by all who are interested in art.

    So Mr Times critic wet little dishrag faint praise of Kobke is really quite illogical.

    Your review was fabulous

  10. Thanks, Peter — I’m glad you enjoyed the review.

    Having been on the receiving end of Waldemar Januszczak’s critical attention myself, briefly (see the comments section here) — he apparently doesn’t think Tories can or should write about art — it’s clear that he and I disagree about quite a lot. His Købke review is full minor snobberies which differ from my own minor snobberies, e.g. he seems to there’s something faintly risible about being the sort of painter who doesn’t turn into a ‘tortured genius’, that painters ought invariably to benefit from ‘stepping out of [their] comfort zone’, even perhaps that there’s something wrong with Købke’s desire to depict a tranquil world when the world in which he actually lived was in some ways quite troubled and contentious.

    In any event, though, Peter, I very much agree with you about Vermeer, and would offer by way of amplification the similarly ‘tiny world’ of Chardin, a painter whose lack of ‘ambition’ is nowadays rarely seen as an obstacle to his greatness.

    The basis of the illogic you identify here may lie in familiarity more than anything more objective. Faced with a painter about whom most English-speaking critics and casual viewers probably know very little, and wondering why it is that we know so little, there are two obvious responses — either Købke isn’t very good, or we’re simply rather ignorant.

    Well, I was happy enough to admit the latter. Mr Januszczak, in contrast, took the other road. He’s a serious critic, though, whereas I’m just an ordinary blogger, so perhaps the stakes were higher in his case?

  11. I saw a Købke up in the MFA Boston yesterday, one of the Italian coastal studies. A delightful find enabled by your review.