The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

The Pictorial Expression of the Golden Age in Philosophical Perspective

  • Ragni Linnet,, 1994
  • This is a re-publication of the article: Ragni Linnet: ‘The Pictorial Expression of the Golden Age in Philosophical Perspective ’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 1994, p. 21-35.
    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.

Drawing on typical examples, this article aims to demonstrate and explain the change in the forms of pictorial expression to be observed in about 1840. This makes it possible to release the Golden Age from mythical interpretations which attach the concept of perfect idyll to the pictorial expressions of the period as a whole. The principal idea of the article is that it is impossible to explain the basically different pictorial expressions of the Golden Age solely as a result of altered economic conditions. Nor is it possible to see the change exclusively as a product of international influence, as the Danish background was very active in the formation of the idiom. For these reasons it is necessary to take into account the dimension of the history of consciousness, where the art historian’s point of view can merge with philosophical and social-philosophical considerations. At the same time the article seeks to increase our understanding of the intricate relationships between aesthetics, politics and modernity.

The pictorial expressions of the Golden Age are divided into three categories.

The Daily Life Pictures of the early Golden Age seem concentrated on establishing a dialogue between the work and the beholder. Rooted in the down-to-earth realism of an industrious middle class, they correlate with the still virginal innocence of the political public, and also relate to the cultural circle around the famous physicist H. C. Ørsted, which was committed to confidence in progress, ‘optimistic dualism’ and the spirit of empirical science. They also relate to a Kantian cultivation of the beauty of nature and to the Schiller- inspired concept of an aesthetic’ coming of age’.

The Sunday Afternoon Pictures of the Golden Age have, in contrast, an alienating approach to reality and sustain a oneway conversation, a monologue, with the spectator. They correlate with the growing pragmatism of the political and artistic public and, in cultural circles, with a showdown with the philosophy of ‘optimistic dualism’ and with the rise of Hegel-inspired dialectics. The latter is reflected in the cultivation of the beauty of art as contrasted to the beauty of nature. It also manifests itself in a changed conception of the function of art, which is increasingly seen as a normative educational principle for aesthetic integration from above. These views are elaborated in relation to the influence of the political torchbearer of National Liberalism, Orla Lehmann, and to J. L. Heiberg, a most influential critic of the age, who expounded the royalist views of the role of art.

At the same time, we see the emergence of a labyrinthine and discordant Existentialist Pictorial Expression, which had very little in common with the early Golden Age. Some of Dankvart Dreyer’s landscapes can provide striking 198 examples of this development. The existentialist, pictorial expression is associated with Søren Kierkegaard’s concept of personal uniqueness (hin Enkelte) and with his diagnosis during a period of mental crisis of an orientation full of anxiety, co-evolving with the transition from absolutism to parliamentarism, and forcing man to assume full responsibility for his own life in unaccustomed ways. As appears from Either-Or (1843), realism is for Kierkegaard an inadequate, anachronistic medium for depicting contemporary reality.

In about 1840 the doctrine of realism of the early Golden Age becomes an insufficient framework for creative expression in both painting and philosophy. It is not able to harbour the expressions demanded by the consciousness of modernity.


Statens Humanistiske Forskningsråd takkes for gennem tildeling af et 3-årigt stipendium (1992-) at have muliggjort udarbejdelsen af denne artikel, som udspringer af et større forskningsprojekt om sammenhængen mellem filosofi og billedudtryk i især den sene guldalder.

Last updated 11.05.2017