Monday, 14 June 2010

Christen Købke

View Outside the North Gate of the Citadel, 1834

At the weekend I saw an exhibition of the work of the Danish painter Christen Købke (1810 - 1848) at the National Gallery in London. I'm embarrased to say that I knew nothing about Købke before I went, but having seen the exhibition - which totally gripped me - I am now a big fan. Købke's paintings are absolutely brilliant for a number of reasons. His technical skill and execution is superb, especially where light is concerned (the photos in this post really do not do his pictures justice at all). I love his handling of colour, with the consistently restrained, muted palettes, and moreover the calm, slightly banal, slightly melancholy, slightly enigmatic feeling which he conjures up.

Realist painting can often end up looking quite naff, but Købke avoids this fate, constantly achieving a certain low-key stylishness in his work. I have quite a fascination with banality, stillness, and the ordinary, and Købke's paintings pick up these elements, but in a very beautiful, accomplished way. I felt very calm and almost at peace wandering around the exhibition, and it reminded me a bit of the later Danish painter, Vilhelm Hammershøi (whose work I also love), who created a similar feeling. There is something quite fascinating about very talented painters who direct their efforts towards empty rooms (in Hammershøi's case), or fairly mundane settings near where they live, as Købke did. It is, I think, a very powerful statement (intentional or otherwise), and it is quite moving. Even when painting the magnificant Frederiksborg Castle, Købke adds a certain melancholic, almost existential, edge, by focusing in his most famous picture of the castle not on the building itself, but on the vast, empty expanse of sky above.

Købke belonged to the Golden Age of Danish Painting (which roughly covered the 1800 - 1850 period), although he died aged 37 and never achieved great recognition in his life. Even now his work is relatively little known, which is a great shame considering what a talented and interesting artist he was.

The Northern Drawbridge to the Citadel in Copenhagen, 1837

View from Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake Looking towards Nørrebro, c.1838

This is brilliant: an unremarkable snapshot in time, caught with great skill, that somehow conjures up (in me, at least) a feeling almost of sadness, even though we are presented with nothing more than the framed moment itself. A similar feeling is evoked below, where Købke diverts our attention from the glory of the Classical carvings with the banality of having to dust them.

View of the Plaster Cast Collection at Charlottenborg, 1830.

Autumn Morning on Lake Sortedam, 1838

View of the Lime Kiln towards Copenhagen, 1836.

Købke never had many commissions during his life, but the portraits which he produced are sympathetic and highly expressive.

Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sødring, 1832.

Portrait of Inger Magrethe Høyen, 1832.

Portrait of the Artist's Cousin's Son, P. Ryder, 1848.

I love the stillness and the sense of calm and purity's partly something about the amazing light which you get in Scandinavia in summer.

Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light, 1835.

Frederiksborg Castle, View near the Møntbro Bridge, 1836.

One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle, c.1834.

Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle, with View of Lake, Town and Forest, c.1843

Here Købke makes a powerful statement with the daring perspective, shunning the glory of the castle in favour of a vast expanse of empty sky.

The exhibition ended on Sunday (apologies for not blogging earlier - I only just found out about it in time myself); this is the accompanying book which I bought:


  1. Thanks for sharing this with us. What a talent, absolutely amazing!

  2. this is a great shout, thanks for sharing this jem. i have not heard of him either but i'm sharing your views for sure. the light he painted is amazing and also looks like a photograph that has been photocopied a few times and changed slightly over time.

    will have to look into his work further, shame i cant make it down

  3. Hapsical, these are beautiful. Exhibition's been added to the growing list... we must see Voyeurism at the Tate soon, it looks great!

    S x

  4. Nice post! I also just found out about Kobke, during a Danish language class. And right now I live very close to the lakes he painted. Now I'll go take a look at the rest of your blog :-)