The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Danish Society in the Golden Age

  • Hans Vammen,, 1994
  • This is a re-publication of the article: Hans Vammen: ‘Danish Society in the Golden Age – a synthetic description’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 1994, p. 9-19.
    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.

A synthetic description

The article offers a synthetic survey of Danish society 1800-1850 (the Golden Age), related to the profound changes undergone during the 18th century. Society is viewed metaphorically as a person who suffers a serious loss, goes through a crisis, gains a new identity and liberates new forces.

Denmark’s loss was threefold: Firstly, there was the external reduction of the kingdom by the loss of Norway in 1814, after the unfortunate Danish participation in the Napoleonic Wars. Secondly, a deep economic crisis, simultaneous with the Golden Age in the arts and sciences succeeded the flourishing prosperity of the late 18th century, brought about by international maritime trade. Finally, structural changes in the agricultural methods, demanded by an ecological crisis in the early 18th century, destroyed the ancient village communities. The feudal, collective-minded peasants were gradually replaced by individualistic capitalist farmers.

The reactions to these losses were repression of the past and anxiety towards the new realities, but the new bourgeois mentality also led to an expansion of consciousness, followed by an enormous creativity. These responses were the same in the urban and agrarian population, but found different expressions due to the different levels of civilization. In the bourgeoisie, traditional religion was reinforced with romantic philosophy. Art became the path to insight in meaningful platonic harmony to counterbalance earthly chaos. During this process the modern concepts of family, home, people (folk), nation, nature, motherhood and love developed. In the countryside the new mode of production created a numerous proletariat of farm hands and wage-dependent smallholders. As a result, revivalist movements developed spontaneously throughout the country. The puritan character of revivalism, with its enforcement of discipline, order and time-consciousness, prepared the peasant mentality for the conditions of urban life. This became useful, when in the 1850s the surplus agrarian population was forced into the towns, forming the new industrial work force. A special Danish feature was the cooperation between revivalism and the romantic churchman and poet N. F. S. Grundtvig, whose ideas founded the Danish Folk High Schools, diminishing the cultural gap between urban and peasant mentalities.

(A full English version of the article is printed in the catalogue of the exhibition “The Golden Age of Danish Painting”, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993.)

Last updated 11.05.2017