The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

The Transformation of the Genres in the First Half of the 19th Century

  • Hannemarie Ragn Jensen,, 1994
  • This is a re-publication of the article:
    • Hannemarie Ragn Jensen: ‘The Transformation of the Genres in the First Half of the 19th Century’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 1994, p. 74-81.*
      For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.

Although the literature on Danish painting of the first half of the 19th century has grown considerably over the past 25 years, the art historian is time and again confronted by questions as to what the paintings actually represent, what the motifs really mean. Neither stylistic, iconographic or sociological analyses, to mention the most frequently used 200 analytical models, can prevent the paintings of the so-called Danish Golden Age from being attributed an expression and content that satisfy the needs of the contemporary art historian for a harmonious exemplar rather than revealing the meaning and intentions of that age. The meticulous technique of the Golden Age, the wealth of detail and the lifelike representation of the surrounding world are often understood as goals in themselves in a somewhat nostalgic search for an impression of the good old days. Thereby the content of the paintings is often trivialised, and the art historian fails to grasp the interaction between inner and outer realities.

Emil Bærentzen’s “Conversation Piece” (1828) serves as an example. It has been regarded as a group portrait of a family, representing a cosy everyday scene of life in a typical middle-class Copenhagen home. On closer inspection one realises that the motif is so loaded with symbols and so complicated in its narrative expression that the work cannot immediately be classified as a group portrait. This was already suggested by the art historian N. L. Høyen when he mentioned Bærentzen among the painters exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1828. It is equally problematic to attempt to categorize this work as a historical or genre painting.

The example may serve to draw attention to the possibility that the motifs of the Golden Age are much more subversive and innovative than has hitherto been assumed. A possible explanation of this phenomenon might be found in the fact that artists of the period identified themselves not only with the genius of Romanticism but also with the rebel in the guise of the Prometheus of the 19th century.


Dette bidrag til seminaret på Statens Museum for Kunst i november 1992 bygger på en omfattende nyere, dansk, kunsthistorisk litteratur, som burde opregnes i en bibliografi. Da dette ikke er muligt inden for de givne rammer, ønsker jeg at fremhæve den betydning Erik Fischers og Mogens Nykjærs studier af den danske guldalders malerkunst har haft for mine overvejelser.

Last updated 11.05.2017