Great Dane

The work of Christen Købke is relatively unknown outside his native land. More's the pity

Michael Prodger

The span of Christen Købke’s short life — 1810-48 — almost exactly corresponds to that of Denmark’s Golden Age. Although little known outside his own country, his paintings, in their serenity and modesty, perfectly symbolise the period of cultural and national renewal that followed the depredations of the Napoleonic wars and Denmark’s ensuing economic and social bankruptcy. Intriguingly, his dates also cover the high-water mark of Romanticism. A less tortured spirit, however, it is impossible to imagine.

Købke was described by his contemporaries as a childlike character, possessed of a simple and grateful religious faith. “The Lord is strong in the weak,” he wrote, and he felt himself to be weak. His first biographer claimed that he “was born without any creative imagination” and that “he was empty and barren as soon as he closed his eyes”. Almost his entire career was spent in or around Copenhagen and it was said that wherever he worked it was always close enough that he could get home in time for dinner. This gentle man, untouched by the existential turmoil that wracked so many of his peers, nevertheless created some of the most beautiful and haunting images of the age.

Together, the 48 works on show in Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery (until 13 June) — a mixture of portraits, landscapes and architectural scenes — are revelatory, albeit an undemonstrative revelation. Although the pictures sometimes flicker with hints of Caspar David Friedrich or Thomas Jones, what they really offer is an entirely individual vision, one that mixes such uncomplementary ingredients as mood and sentiment with realism and clarity. 

The world of Købke’s paintings is a very small one. He confined himself largely to views of the Citadel (the military fort where his father was the official baker), Frederiksborg Castle and the rural suburb of Blegdammen. His portraits, which were usually gifts rather than commissions, are almost exclusively of family and friends. His paintings lack storytelling and drama. Common to all his exterior scenes is a crystalline golden light and a sense of preternatural stillness. Common to all his portraits — apart from the mystery as to why they are not universally celebrated — is a palpable directness and lack of affectation. 

Underlying his pictures was an immaculate technique: Købke was a fine draughtsman and colourist who had received a formal training that emphasised observation and pictorial order. But he was also a child of his time, a moment in art in which the idealism of Neoclassicism gave way to less elevated subjects. Købke’s paintings, whether of a jetty by a lake or a bridge trimmed with railings, are always carefully structured and anchored with strong verticals and horizontals. 

A perfect example of his compositional daring and eye for the unregarded is One of the Small Towers of Frederiksborg Castle, c. 1834. From high on the castle roof, Købke shows a cluster of chimneys and a massive ogee dome with its lantern and spire. Behind it is a gentle landscape peopled with tiny walking figures. A stork perches on one chimney while its mate circles in the warm air. It is a scene of quiet that is both static and subtly moving. It shows a bourgeois Eden in which Denmark’s greatest national monument and the land it represents are bathed in a light that, fanciful though it may seem, has the beneficence of grace. It is architecturally accurate and simultaneously poetic. And it shows that Købke, at his best, was a quite magical painter.

Another artist who captured the spirit of his country at a formative moment in its history was Paul Sandby (1731-1809). Often referred to as “the father of English watercolour”, Sandby was the precursor to Turner, Girtin et al and the man who showed not only the potential of watercolour as an artistic — rather than documentary — medium but showed too that the British Isles were as fit a subject for the brush as anything Italy had to offer. It is primarily to Sandby that we owe our mental image of the appearance of Georgian Britain.

The bicentenary exhibition at the Royal Academy (Sandby was one of the Academy’s founding members) is an attempt to rehabilitate this superseded painter. It is not an easy task mainly because Sandby himself was not entirely clear whether he was primarily an artist — in the sense of having a transforming eye — or, more prosaically, a simple view-taker. He was not alone in this, George III astutely noting, somewhat equivocally, that the painter could turn his “hand to anything, like a fox”.

Sandby’s career started in the topographical drawing room at the Board of Ordnance and in 1747, in the wake of the Forty-Five rebellion, he was appointed chief draughtsman for the Army’s project to make a “complete and accurate survey of Scotland”. Although he was later to shake off some of this cartographical literalness the observational accuracy it instilled in him was evident throughout his career. It is there in the sun-infused views of Windsor Castle and its deer park he painted in the early 1760s and there, too, in the not-quite-picturesque landscapes of Wales he made while touring with Sir Joseph Banks a decade later. A lifelong lack of money further constrained his artistic ambition.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure in Sandby’s pictures is to be found in his depiction of people. Small figures enliven every image — soldiers, carters, women both fashionable and common — as they do in Canaletto’s scenes. They bring sense and scale to the settings, they bring life too and little snatches of humour. Above all, it is through them that his prelapsarian world of bustling streets, horse fairs, military encampments, ruined abbeys and country estates is shown to be not just a living entity but an irrepressibly hale and hearty realm.

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