“But where is the light coming from?” one enraptured visitor asked her companion. The two women were studying an ink drawing by the Danish painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. I joined them in front of the picture. It was true: the source of light in the image was bewildering. The sunlight seemed to be everywhere; what time of day was the artist aiming to capture? And why was the horizon line set so low, making the sky appear dizzyingly vast? Such disconcerting questions about light and perspective stir beneath the surface of the arresting (and often extraordinary) work included in Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth Century Danish Art, on view at the Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition gathers oil, watercolor, ink, and graphite works whose tranquil luminosity belies the turbulence of the times in which they were created.
The decades of peace that characterized Denmark’s early modern history came to an abrupt end in 1807, when the British fleet bombarded Copenhagen, causing widespread damage to the city and inaugurating Denmark’s official involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to the harrowing casualties — some scholars estimate that the Napoleonic Wars claimed the lives of as many as 6.5 million people throughout Europe from 1800 to 1815 — the conflicts had a catastrophic effect on Denmark’s economy. The country went bankrupt in 1813, and was forced to surrender Norway to Sweden the following year. Despite these disasters, Denmark thrived in other ways. With its borders diminished and its traditional power structures eroded, the country entered a new golden age of intellectualism, as Danish artists, writers, and thinkers grappled with these socio-political shifts.
Beyond the Light offers a more nuanced and intimate history of this period than the violent, fiery pictures of the Battle of Copenhagen and the Dano-Swedish War by history painters such as Frederik Christian Lund and Christian Møsted. Many of the paintings and drawings on view are by the master painter Eckersberg (1783–1853), often referred to as the father of Danish painting, and by his students at the Copenhagen Academy. Featuring a wide range of media, these works depict friends and fellow artists, rustic travel scenes, and solitary views of the city and the natural world. In their attunement to the dazzling optical effects of light, reflection, and shadow, these pieces are intensely satisfying for any museum-goer, even one with no background or prior interest in Danish art. However, Beyond the Light is at least as much a show about Danish history as it is about Danish painting, or, perhaps more accurately, it is about Danish painting’s capacity to function as Danish history. The technical skill and adherence to classic techniques of perspective that characterize the work of Eckersberg and his contemporaries can appear at odds with their extraordinary use of light, which floods these works from all sides, giving the impression that the artists have moved beyond the reality of the sun as a single light source. Given Denmark’s proximity to the North and Baltic seas, perhaps the luminosity of these paintings partially arises from the mirrored effects of sunlight on water. This visual friction between reality and the imagination, enacted in the uncanny combination of meticulous detail and ambiguous light, is central to the ideas of Danish Romanticism, which — as the wall texts tell us — arose during this period. Philosophically speaking, the show raises questions about how a painting, as an interpretation of reality, might qualify as a historical record: a visual account of a feeling or mood more than a documentation of an event itself.
Denmark’s military defeat, its financial collapse, and the diminishment of its borders are not explicitly depicted in the work on view; while some of the paintings in the exhibition show a stray abandoned cannon or an off-duty soldier, the majority do not directly reference war or violence. Instead, Denmark’s upheavals at this time appear to be metabolized into the atmosphere, reappearing as pure light which floods the works, spilling across ports and vistas, illuminating the harbor and glinting off cannons and boats. In Bedsted Lorenz Frølich Sitting in a Passage Grave (1840), a pen and watercolor painting by Johan Thomas Lundbye, a band of peach-colored daylight pours in through the mouth of a cave, cutting the shadowed scene in two. In one particularly lovely graphite drawing by Vilhelm Hammershøi, white paper showing through beneath the trees suggests the penetration of light through the forest’s overstory.
Amid all this arresting light there is the presence of something more unsettling, more tentative in these images: a suspense or a hanging in time and space that defies the solidity of the specific references: castle, harbor, mountain. The light creates a paradoxical sense of both exposure and obscurity: Everything has been made visible, but the sky above the city is so blank and still that it appears enigmatic, almost an abstraction.
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” writes Emily Dickinson of the solemn quietude that follows an experience of agony. In the aftermath of rupture, the “nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.” There is a hallucinatory quality to the clarity of the moment; everything is exposed, there is nothing hidden, and the scene appears temporarily suspended in time. Time itself becomes unchartable and strange: the speaker in the poem cannot remember whether the pain was “yesterday” or “centuries before.” In the context of Denmark’s turbulent 19th century, the works on view evoke this dazed “formal feeling” that Dickinson’s poem describes. At the same time, however, their elusive brightness is too ambiguous for a simple post-traumatic reading. There is too much light for the scene to appear as “post-” anything: as the aftermath of an event, or as the literal or figurative “twilight” of a country’s history. This unbroken brightness gives the sense that these paintings are set before noon; metaphorically speaking, it is early in the day for Denmark, and there is more to come. Even the few works that ostensibly depict moonlight do so with a palette that blurs the rise of the sun and moon. In View From the Citadel Ramparts in Copenhagen by Moonlight (1839), an oil painting by Martinus Christian Wesseltoft Rørbye, the obfuscation of the moon by a pillar in the foreground makes it hard to tell what celestial body we are actually looking at. The blue, milky sky could indicate either dawn or dusk, as the sun or moon casts glints of almond-colored light off the water’s surface.
Bathed in this enigmatic glow, the works on view convey, in their formal composition, the uncertain trajectory of Denmark in the 19th century. In an era marked by Denmark’s defeat, economic collapse, and loss of territory, the events of the mid-19th century could have signaled either a bleak or a hopeful turning point in the country’s history. This sense of a nation at a crossroads is particularly evident in Eckersberg’s 1809 ink drawing The Harbor of Copenhagen. Here, well-dressed civilians relax by the waterfront, and the harbor is filled with ships, many of which proudly fly the Danish flag. This idyllic scene belies the devastation of Denmark’s navy and merchant fleet during the bombardment by the British two years earlier. The battery of cannons lining the promenade in the foreground is a grim reminder of that violence. Reflecting on the image, a viewer might wonder if this is a scene of a fresh start, or of a country shadowed with reminders of past devastation.
This atmospheric ambiguity is projected in the short, hard-edged shadows cast by the civilians on the promenade, a sharpness that places the scene sometime just before or after noon. In its midday radiance, the work depicts the zenith of a narrative arc: the day’s center, poised between the dissolving morning and the already waning sun of the afternoon. This same pale light characterizes graphite and watercolor paintings of Danish national monuments: In One of the Small Towers on Fredericksborg Castle (1831), by Christen Købke, a sharp shadow falls across the turret, as trees and mountains in the distance melt into a cloudless horizon. In View Over Holmens Canal to the Stock Exchange, Christiansborg Palace, and Holmen’s Church (1846), by Eckersberg, there are hardly any shadows at all. This depiction of high noon evokes a moment of perceptual transition that is both quotidian (the changing light of day) and national: a country literally poised between the past and the future.
Beyond the Light documents this pivotal moment in Denmark’s history. Like the boat in Eckersberg’s Corvette “Najaden” (1833), whose sails appear to be buffeted in the opposite direction of its wake, the culture that these works register does not know which way it is headed. This sense of mid-day possibility — in all its hope and terror — pulses beneath these scenes of seeming repose. ❖
Liz Scheer is a painter and freelance writer in New York City whose work has appeared in ArtFuse and Two Coats of Paint.