A sense of preternatural stillness: "One of the Small Towers of Frederiksborg Castle," by Christen Købke
The span of Christen Købke's short life — 1810-48 — almost exactly corresponds to that of Denmark's Golden Age. Although little known outside his own country, his paintings, in their serenity and modesty, perfectly symbolise the period of cultural and national renewal that followed the depredations of the Napoleonic wars and Denmark's ensuing economic and social bankruptcy. Intriguingly, his dates also cover the high-water mark of Romanticism. A less tortured spirit, however, it is impossible to imagine.
Købke was described by his contemporaries as a childlike character, possessed of a simple and grateful religious faith. "The Lord is strong in the weak," he wrote, and he felt himself to be weak. His first biographer claimed that he "was born without any creative imagination" and that "he was empty and barren as soon as he closed his eyes". Almost his entire career was spent in or around Copenhagen and it was said that wherever he worked it was always close enough that he could get home in time for dinner. This gentle man, untouched by the existential turmoil that wracked so many of his peers, nevertheless created some of the most beautiful and haunting images of the age.
Together, the 48 works on show in Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery (until 13 June) — a mixture of portraits, landscapes and architectural scenes — are revelatory, albeit an undemonstrative revelation. Although the pictures sometimes flicker with hints of Caspar David Friedrich or Thomas Jones, what they really offer is an entirely individual vision, one that mixes such uncomplementary ingredients as mood and sentiment with realism and clarity.
The world of Købke's paintings is a very small one. He confined himself largely to views of the Citadel (the military fort where his father was the official baker), Frederiksborg Castle and the rural suburb of Blegdammen. His portraits, which were usually gifts rather than commissions, are almost exclusively of family and friends. His paintings lack storytelling and drama. Common to all his exterior scenes is a crystalline golden light and a sense of preternatural stillness. Common to all his portraits — apart from the mystery as to why they are not universally celebrated — is a palpable directness and lack of affectation.
Underlying his pictures was an immaculate technique: Købke was a fine draughtsman and colourist who had received a formal training that emphasised observation and pictorial order. But he was also a child of his time, a moment in art in which the idealism of Neoclassicism gave way to less elevated subjects. Købke's paintings, whether of a jetty by a lake or a bridge trimmed with railings, are always carefully structured and anchored with strong verticals and horizontals.