It seems to be axiomatic that the titles of books and exhibitions on Nordic painting—not that there are many in the Anglophone world—must include the word "light." In recent decades we have seen (or overlooked, as the case may be) Northern Light, In Another Light, Baltic Light and The Triumph of Light and Nature. The current exhibition at the National Gallery in London reaffirms the convention. On view through June 13, "Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light" is the first exhibition of Købke’s work outside his native land, but he comes trailing a strong local reputation as the greatest painter of Denmark’s so-called Golden Age, by which is broadly meant the first half of the nineteenth century, the heyday of Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen. In fact, in painting at least, the Golden Age was coterminous with the period from 1818, when Købke’s teacher C.W. Eckersberg was appointed professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and 1848, the year of Købke’s death, at 37.
Don’t let the phrase "Golden Age" fool you. Truth in labeling would compel us to follow Fritz Novotny and use the term commonly applied to Austrian and German art of the era: Danish Biedermeier. As David Jackson points out in his thorough and illuminating exhibition catalog, this age was golden only insofar as the Danes had more or less successfully adjusted to expectations severely diminished by the period of political and military calamity that had opened the century. The second half of the eighteenth century had been a period of rising prosperity, but during the Napoleonic era an alliance with France proved to be Denmark’s undoing; in 1801 its vaunted navy was crushed by Admiral Nelson, and in 1807 British bombardment flattened Copenhagen. Runaway inflation ensued, leading to the nation’s bankruptcy in 1813 and political deflation the following year, when Denmark lost control of Norway. By 1820 a popular poet could un-self-consciously, if self-pityingly, write, "Denmark is a small, impoverished land."
This was the country into which Købke was born in 1810. His father was a master baker who supplied (and, with his family, lived in) the military citadel on the outskirts of Copenhagen; growing up in this environment, the boy must have been well aware that his father was serving a diminished power. He was not yet 12 when he was admitted to the Academy, which had been established the century before on the French model, with a strictly neoclassical program. The appointment of Eckersberg, a onetime student of Jacques-Louis David, must have seemed like a way of keeping art education in safe hands, but Eckersberg had ideas of his own. With little sympathy for the heroic brand of history painting that was the acme of academic art, he successfully applied his austerely classical approach to composition to the "lower" genres of portraiture and landscape. Denying the hierarchy of genres, he exhorted painters simply to "paint from nature, no matter what it might be, farmhouses, churches, castles, trees, plants or animals, in short whatever is there." Eckersberg’s landscapes, as Jackson notes—"closely observed, detailed, disarmingly natural, yet set in an idealised, tranquil light that lends the scene a curious mixture of stillness and astonishing realism, rather as if time has been suspended"—set the tone for Golden Age painting, and in particular that of Købke.
Købke was a prodigy. He painted many of the works for which he is most renowned when he was in his 20s—between 1830, when he was still a student of Eckersberg’s, and 1838, when he embarked on the Italian journey that was de rigueur for any serious artist of the time; his subsequent work is thought to be much less consistent in quality, although a visitor to the tightly selected show of some fifty works at the National Gallery will notice no particular falling off. But just as no one at the time spoke of a Golden Age—the label was first applied in the 1890s—so no one at the time pegged Købke as a standout. He was one more earnest striver, and less successful than many.