The Politicization of Art in the 1840s

An interpretation of a painting by P. C. Skovgaard in the context of some ideological and stylistic trends in mid-19th century Denmark

My article begins with a description and interpretation of P. C. Skovgaard’s monumental landscape composition The Road Passing Vognserup Manor, which was shown at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts’ annual exhibition in 1849. Centrally placed in the picture is Skovgaard’s friend, the artist J. Th. Lundbye. Skovgaard had painted Lundbye in a corresponding situation, but in a quite different landscape composition in a study from 1843. 1848-50 were the years in which Denmark conducted a bitter struggle against the rebels from Schleswig-Holstein and their German allies. Lundbye volunteered for the war but was killed in a shooting accident in its first year. Skovgaard pays homage to the national martyr by depicting him, as was typical of Lundbye, in the midst of nature and with the children as curious spectators. But the picture is also contemporaneous with the drafting of Denmark’s first free constitution, in which national-liberal politicians like Orla Lehmann and D. G. Monrad played a significant role. And, taken as a whole, the painting can be read as a representation of the national-liberal cultural ideology. The dark avenue lined with big trees symbolizes the dark, feudal past, while the view we are given of the landscape with its fertile fields and village church, behind the painter at his easel, refers both to the brighter present and to the past that should continue to be part of the present: the country, its people, and its history. In Danish art this orientation towards a current political ideology can be traced back to around 1840. Its artistic counterpart is National Romanticism, which culminated in the years 1845-55, but was still a force to be reckoned with in the 1870s, when Naturalism emerged on the scene. A number of Danish artists adopted positive attitudes to the struggle for a free constitution, for national identity and for an art that could speak to the common people. These attitudes inspired such major works as Skovgaard, Lundbye and L. Frølich’s decoration Nordic Festival (1845) , Frølich’ s illustrations for Oehlenschläger’s The Two Church Towers (1844), H. W. Bissen’s The Brave Soldier (1858), Const. Hansen’s The Constitutional Assembly (1864) and Jørgen Sonne and Christen Dalsgaard’s depictions of popular life. These works were produced as contributions to a cultural struggle in which the opposing side, the absolute monarchy, supported by the leading writers of the period, had a narrow majority in the executive committee of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In this conflict the commissions occasioned by royal ceremonies, Christian VIII’s anointment in 1840 and Crown-Prince Frederik’s marriage in 1841, can be seen as attempts at cementing artists’ loyalty to the State. Finally, it is argued that the period preceding National Romanticism is more usefully described by the stylistic concepts of Biedermeier, poetic realism, classicism and Sturm und Drang than by its traditional designation: the Golden Age.

Last updated 11.05.2017