The Portraiture of Christen Købke

Self Portrait by Christen Købke (1833)
Self Portrait by Christen Købke (1833)

Today, as I promised in my last blog, I am going to continue looking at the life of the Danish painter Christen Købke and concentrate on some of his intriguing and exquisite portraiture work.

Portrait of the Artist's Wife,Susanne Cecilie Købke by Christen Købke (c.1836)
Portrait of the Artist’s Wife,Susanne Cecilie Købke by Christen Købke (c.1836)

In my last blog, I had reached the year 1836 in the life of Købke and he had just completed a series of works featuring the Frederiksborg Castle.   A year later, in November 1837, Købke married Susanne Cecilie Købke, whom he called Sanne, and shortly afterwards painted a portrait of his young bride.  The following August after gaining a travel stipend awarded to him by the Royal Danish Academy, Købke leaves his wife and home and along with the Danish decorative artist, Georg Christian Hilker, sets off on a two year painting expedition around Europe.  On their way to Italy they call at Dresden and Munich and pass through Austria before arriving in Rome on December 8th 1838.  It is in the Italian capital that Købke meets up with many other Danish artists living in the Eternal City as well as the sculptor and medallist, Frederik Krohn, his brother-in-law, who had married his sister Susanne.  In May 1839 Købke, along with Hilker and another Danish artist, Constantin Hansen journey to Naples and later to Capri where they stay until the end of that year painting out in the open air.  The following year Købke spends months examining the ruins of Pompeii where he completes a series of sketches and paintings.

View of Marina Picola on Capri by Christen Købke (1846)
View of Marina Picola on Capri by Christen Købke (1846)

In September 1840 Købke returns home to Copenhagen and in June 1841, Købke’s wife Susanne gives birth to their first child, a son, Hans Peter Carl.  In 1842 Købke applies for membership to the Royal Danish Academy which accepts his proposal of a landscape work featuring Capri as his membership piece.   He was given two years in which to complete the painting.  In 1843 Købke’s father, Peter, dies.  By the end of 1844 Købke has still to complete his membership piece for the Academy but fortunately they give him a two year extension.  In 1845 his second child was born, a daughter, Juliane Emilie.   In 1846 he had finally finished the painting entitled View of Marina Picola on Capri and submits it to the Academy.  To his amazement and disappointment the Academy rejects the work. 

Christen Købke's gravestone
Christen Købke’s gravestone

On February 7th 1848, Christen Købke died of pneumonia, aged 37 albeit his family maintained that the rejection of his painting by the Academy was a contributing factor in his death.  Købke was buried in Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen.   He left behind his wife Susanne and children Hans and Juliane.  His wife died the following year and his children were looked after by Købke’s sister Sophie.


Today’s blog concentrates on some of Købke’s portraiture.   Portraiture is not simply the representation of a specific individual or individuals.  It is not just documentary evidence of a person’s features.  A good portrait looks into the soul of the person and can be used to define who the person is and by so doing the finished work gives us a clear and coherent sense of the real person we see before us on the canvas.   If one thinks about a media outlet, such as a newspaper office, and think about the use of their photograph archives.   Take an example of an editorial the newspaper wants to put out an article about a celebrity.  They go to their photo archives and pick a photo which corroborates the story that they are writing.   In other words, the picture  gives one an idea about that person’s character but of course we need to remember that the newspaper can manipulate their story by cleverly using a photograph simply to prove their point, whether it be true or false.  This is the same with portraiture.  The portrait artist is able to manipulate his or her work so that the finished depiction can present certain characteristics or status of the sitter, which the sitter wants us to see. The portraitist can also add objects to the portrait so as to represent an idea, such as wealth by adding luxury furnishings or by depicting the sitter in expensive clothing.  They can add smouldering candles or a skull to create a Vanitas painting in which they want us to contemplate the passing of time and our own mortality.  In other words, the secret to great portraiture is not just how well the finished likeness is to the sitter but about how much it tells us about the sitter, about his or her place in society and their character.


As far as the Academic “pecking order” was concerned portraiture was secondary to History Painting in the painting genres.  Portraiture has been around since the Ancient Egyptians with their wall paintings depicting their gods and their Pharoes.  We saw portraiture in the form of sculptures and on the coinage in Ancient Greek and Roman times.  The Renaissance brought us portraits of the royalty, nobility and religious leaders and later we were to see portraits of the nouveau riche and the bourgeoisie classes.  In present times the art world is flooded with portraits of so-called “celebrities”.  All the sitters for these portraits wanted the artist to create a portrait which would confirm their new position in society.

Christen Købke’s portraits differ from many of his contemporaries as he liked to depict the sitter in such a way so that we could read their character from their expressions.  He had decided what their character was and translated that into the painting.  Some of his best portraiture was a simple head and shoulder depiction with no external accoutrements such as furniture or items which could be used to tell the story of the sitter.  The story of the sitter was in the face – the facial expression was to tell its own story.  His works were the culmination of his probing of the personality of the sitter.  Throughout his life, Købke was to complete numerous portraits.  The majority were single-figure portraits whose image was full of character.  However this intense searching for character in a person and his disinterest in having tell-tale inclusion of items advertising their status was in some ways counterproductive as for many would-be major portrait commissions that was just what sitters wanted and Købke’s modus operandi could well explain his lack of many lucrative commissions.  When we look at many of his portraits they are of family members, friends and acquaintances and not for rich fee-paying clients.  It was their loss as his outstanding talent as a portrait artist cannot be questioned.

His self-portrait, at the start of this blog, was the only one he ever painted and it was completed around 1833 when he was twenty-three years old.  It is a head and shoulder pose against a plain dark background which can thus not distract our eyes from looking directly at the sitter.  Although now in his early twenties there is a boyish look to him and that is enhanced by his ruddy-red cheeks, a facial quality which allegedly went down well with the local Italian girls when he visited their country some years later.  He has an engaging countenance and a look of sincerity.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Cecilia Margrete, née Petersen by Christen Købke (1829)
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Cecilia Margrete, née Petersen by Christen Købke (1829)

Købke also painted his parents portraits.   Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Ceilia Margarete, née Petersen was completed in 1829 when he was nineteen years of age. Six years later, he completed a portrait of his father, entitled Portrait of the Artist’s Father, Master Baker Peter Købke.  

Portrait of Inger Margrethe Høyen, née Schrøder, The Art Historian N.L. Høyen's Mother by Christen Købke (1832)
Portrait of Inger Margrethe Høyen, née Schrøder, The Art Historian N.L. Høyen’s Mother by Christen Købke (1832)

One of my favourite portraiture works of Købke was one he completed in1832.  It was a portrait of Inger Høyen, who was the mother of his friend and mentor, the art historian, Niels Høyen.   The portrait, simply entitled Portrait of Inger Margrethe Høyen née Schrøder, was completed by Købke in 1832.  It is a beautifully painted work brimful of characterisation.  It is a very sympathetic depiction of an old lady.  Inger was a prosperous, self-made woman, the daughter of a Jutland gardener who went on to marry a man who worked as a distiller in a local brewery and who would later go on to run his own distillery.  By all accounts she was a mild-mannered but astute person who possessed an imaginative quality.  Look how Købke has portrayed her.  Notwithstanding the wrinkles of time on her face he has clearly depicted her as a woman with a caring and an unassuming nature, an unpretentious character whose face radiates charm and kindness.

Portrait of the Landscape Painter, Frederik Sødring by Christen Købke (1832)
Portrait of the Landscape Painter, Frederik Sødring by Christen Købke (1832)

The final portrait I want to show you by Købke differs from most of his portraiture as there is a background to the painting and has objects included in the depiction which were there as an aid to telling the story of the sitter and his friendship with the artist.   It is a carefully crafted work and needs to be studied carefully.  As I told you in the last blog, Købke, in 1832, just before completing his Academy training, rented a studio with his friend and fellow student, Frederik Sødring in Toldbodvej, which was close to the Citadel.  The street is now renamed Esplanaden.  It was in that same year that Købke painted his friends portrait as he sat in their studio.  The painting is entitled Portrait of a Landscape Painter Frederik Sødring.  What is amazing about this painting is that Købke was just twenty-three years of age when he completed this work. He gave the portrait to Sødring as a twenty-third birthday present and on the reverse of the canvas there is an inscription written by Sødring:

“…Presented to me by my friend!  Ch: Købke on my birthday 31 May 1832…”


It is an intimate portrait done by friend, of a friend.  I am struck by Sødring’s youthful ruddy cheeks.   Before us we see Sødring relaxing, partly slouched in an upright wooden chair, in a somewhat  inelegant fashion.  I wonder how the sitter and artist decided on the pose.   Despite his somewhat ungainly posture, there is an air confidence about him.   In his left hand he holds his palette whilst in his right hand, which rests on his leg, he holds a palette knife. He is ready to start painting.   Sødring is wearing a striped shirt and brocaded silk waistcoat with a black velvet collar.   Look how well the folds of the crisp cotton shirt and the brocade are beautifully painted by the artist.   What did Købke want the painting tell the world about his friend and their friendship?  Can you imagine the conversation between the two artists during the hours the portrait was being painted?  

Købke has also managed to give us the impression that their studio was not pristine but somewhat untidy, somewhat cluttered – a working space.  The setting appears “stage-managed” and items have been added to the portrait which mean something to the two men.   Behind the sitter we see a door with an ornate brass latch and on the door is hanging an oval mirror.  Why would you hang a mirror on a door?   Maybe the answer is in the reflection we can see in the mirror of an easel and a picture frame.  By including these images in this way it allowed Købke to not have to fill the painting with the actual easel or have his friend sitting before it.  The depiction of mirrored reflections within a painting was used by many artists, especially the Dutch and Flemish painters.  Famous paintings incorporating mirrored reflections include the Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck and Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas.

Also on the doors are a number of copper engravings, some of ancient Roman ruins and one of a cow.  After Købke’s death in February 1848 an itinerary was made of all his works and those of other artists he had collected.  Amongst the list was five etchings by Paulus Potter, the Dutch painter, who was famous for his depiction of cows and the one we see in the Sødring portrait is more than likely to be one of those.  Below the mirror we see an accomplished still life depiction on a mahogany table incorporating a potted ivy plant and some sketch books.  The ivy is a plant which always clings to its support, and in art symbolises attachment and undying affection and its inclusion in the painting is probably a reminder of the close friendship between the two aspiring artists, Sødring and Købke.  The items placed on the table are of different textures and subtle colours which add an element of contrast.  Amongst them is an eye-catching red box, which because of its vibrant colour, captures our attention and draws our eyes towards the table and its contents.  To the right of the seated artist, leaning against the panelled wall, is a portable artist’s folding stool which alludes to Sødring’s artistic forte, plein air landscape paintings.  The painting is housed in the Hirschprung Collection, the Copenhagen art museum which is located close to the much larger Danish National Gallery.  The works of art in this smaller museum concentrate on paintings of the Danish Golden Age from 1800 to 1850.

 Sadly during Købke’s lifetime his artistic work was not appreciated and he received few commissions.  His life was relatively short and his total output was small compared to many of his contemporaries and much of it was held by family members.  However, as is often the case, Købke is now looked upon by art historians as one of the most distinguished Danish painters of his time.  He is now thought of as one of the most gifted among the Danish Golden Age painters.


I am ending this blog on a personal note.   My first blog was published on November 9th 2010 and today’s blog is my 500th !   Back at the start of this venture I had no idea that I would complete so many but as long as I get enjoyment out of researching the works and the artists I will try to carry on a little longer.   I was always determined that my blog should not just be a painting and its title.  I wanted to write more about the subject of the painting, the life of the artist and a little about the history of the time.   When I look back at the early blogs I see I wrote far fewer words but I was able to publish more often.  However, recently, it has been my intention to write in more depth and publish less blogs and although the “Daily” in the title of my blog is now a misnomer I feel the “more in-depth but less frequent” publications are for the best.  I would like to thank the many of you who have favourably commented on the blogs and to the couple of people I have upset with my words, I apologise.

The Frederiksborg Castle paintings by Christen Købke

Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light by Christen Købke (1835)
Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light by Christen Købke (1835)

The featured painter in my next two blogs is the Danish artist, Christen Købke, who lived in Denmark in the first half of the nineteenth century, a period which was to become known as den danske guldalder (the Danish Golden Age).  The paintings I am looking in this blog feature the Frederiksborg Palace, sometimes referred to as the Frederiksborg Castle, the majority of which was built as the royal residence of King Christian IV the ruler of the joint kingdoms of Denmark and Norway between 1602 and 1620.

Christen Købke was born in May 1810 in Copenhagen.  He had an unremarkable upbringing.  He came from a well-to-do family, at the head of which was his father, Peter Berendt Købke and his mother Cecilie Margrete Købke (née Petersen).  Christen was one of eleven children, five boys and six girls.  His father Peter, like his father before him, was a baker and owned a bakery in the town of Hillerød, some twenty miles north of Copenhagen, which was also the location of the Frederiksborg Castle.  At the age of five, the Købke family moved to Copenhagen where his father had been awarded a fifteen year contract to serve as head baker to the large military Citadel, known as the Kastellet.  This was a very lucrative contract for it had a guaranteed clientele and secured the family’s future prosperity.

By all accounts, Christen was a sickly child and various illnesses would trouble him throughout his life.  When he was eleven years old he contracted rheumatic fever and was bedridden for a number of months, following which came a long period of convalescence.  It was during this enforced resting period that Christen started to sketch and began to formulate the idea of becoming an artist.   His parents supported their son’s desire to study art and in May 1822 just after his twelfth birthday, they arranged for him to begin studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, which was housed in the Charlottenborg Palace, close to Købke’s home in the Citadel.  It was a slow process and it was not until he was in his fifth year at the establishment that he began figure and life drawing.  However one should remember his young age and accept that the time at the academy allowed him to mature and develop at a slow and calculated pace.  His lessons covered such things as the theory of perspective, mathematics, anatomy, history, mythology and the history of art.  It was an all-round education for prospective artists and its art students included the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl.

Initially he studied under the tutorship of the eighty-year old Christian Lorentzen and later in 1828, after Lorentzen’s death, he was taken on by the Danish painter, Christoffer Eckersberg,  for his final four years at the academy.  Under the tutelage of Eckersberg, Købke’s art thrived and by the end of his studies he had become a gifted artist.  With the help of Eckersberg, he had mastered the art of working from nature.  In 1832 just before the end of his academic training he, along with a fellow student, the landscape painter, Frederick Hansen Sødring, rented a studio close to the Kastellet.  It was to be their artistic base from which they were to launch their artistic careers.  During his time at the Academy Købke received a number of awards for his work.   He never achieved a gold medal but was presented with the Academy’s small silver medallion in 1831 and a large silver medallion in 1833.

In 1933 his father’s contract with the military came to an end and he, at the age of 62, decided to retire and so, along with his family, moved from the Citadel to a large and grand house in Blegdammen, which was situated just outside the ramparts of the Citadel.

My featured works by Købke depict the magnificent Fredriksborg Castle, which lies some twenty miles north of Copenhagen.  It is located on three small islands in the middle of the Slotsøen, the Palace Lake, and is surrounded by large formal Baroque-style gardens.  Købke’s paintings of the castle were completed between 1834 and 1836.

Shortly after Købke had finished at the Academy he visited Fredriksborg Castle where he met the art historian, Neils Høyen.  Høyen at the time was living in the castle, cataloguing the royal portrait collection.  Høyen was to be a great influence on the life of Købke. He was an art critic and art historian, who vigorously promoted Danish nationalistic art, whether it was through literature or works of art.   He, like Købke, had studied at the Academy and later returned there and gave lectures to the students.  In 1836 he became the first Professor of Art History at the University of Copenhagen.  More importantly he was a founder member of the Kunstforeningen, the Copenhagen Art Union in 1827 and in 1847 he established the Nordic Art Society.     The Art Union, amongst other things, would sponsor competitions.  In its competition of 1834 one of the subjects for that year’s competition was landscape painting, which highlighted a Danish locale. Another that same year called for an interior or exterior view of a noteworthy or characteristic Danish building or public place.  Høyen persuaded Købke to paint views of the Fredriksborg Castle and submit them for the competition.  For Høyen, this would also be an opportunity for Købke to record, through his art, a piece of Danish national heritage.

One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle by Christen Købke (1834)
One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle by Christen Købke (1834)

Købke completed the first of the castle paintings in 1834.  It was a work which just depicted a close-up of one of the small towers of the castle and was entitled One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle. It was a small work just measuring 26cms x 19cms.  In this painting we have a birds-eye view of the roof of the castle and see a large stork perched on one of the chimney tops, eyeing his or her mate as they fly off over the fields.  Købke so liked the finished work that he produced a larger version of it, which he gave to his parents and which hung on the wall of their dining room.  It is currently housed in the Danish Museum of Art and Design in Copenhagen.

Roof Ridge of Fredericksborg Castle with View of the Lake by Christen Købke (1834)
Roof Ridge of Fredericksborg Castle with View of the Lake by Christen Købke (1834)

Shortly after the completion of those painting Købke finished his large work (177cms x 171cms) entitled Roof Ridge of Fredericksborg Castle with View of the Lake.  There is emptiness about this work as the majority of the canvas is virtually taken up by a sky which is both uninspiring and unimaginative.   In fact all that we see is the roof line, a chimney, and a tower.  Further afield we have the lake and the small town of Hillerød.   These paintings did not fulfill Høyen’s criteria that art should record the country’s national treasures and yet people recognized the castle from the simple isolated details in the painting so maybe they did partly follow Høyen’s dictates.

Frederiksborg Castle by J.C Dahl (1814)
Frederiksborg Castle by J.C Dahl (1814)

However, Købe’s third painting of the castle, and the one shown at the top of the blog, entitled Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light, fulfilled Høyen’s romantic nationalist ambitions.   It is a magnificent work measuring 72cms x 103cms.  The castle had been the subject of paintings by many artists before Købke.  He, like many before him, decided to chose the view as seen from the other side of the lake.  Johan Christian Dahl, the Norwegian artist, had painted the same view in 1814 and 1817.

It had been a very trying period in Købke’s life.  The time deadline for producing a work for the Fine Art Society exhibition along with the technical challenges thrown up by the work took their toll on him both physically and mentally.  He wrote to his sister, Conradine, during this time telling her of the problems he was having and the stress it was causing.  It would appear that she was the most sympathetic of his family members and a good listener and it was with her he liked to stay when he found the stress unbearable.  In his letter to her, he wrote:

 “…I am taking my refuge with you tonight, as I know with you I will find a friendly place and I need to do so once in a while to unburden my mind….I have difficulties lately as my spirit has been under pressure, mainly because of the burden of my work and the bad weather and is always the case with me my body suffers from this…”

Whether he had some doubts as to whether the work would do well in the exhibition one will never know but we do know he started a second version which he was going to enter in to the exhibition instead of his initial painting but he failed to complete it in time for the exhibition deadline so he put forward his original offering.   Alas, it did not win.  There were some critical comments about errors of perspective in the work and maybe that is why his contemporary, Jørgen Roed, carried off the first prize.   However, Købke had the consolation that the Society purchased the work.

 Frederiksborg Castle.  View near the Møntbro Bridge by Christen  Købke (1836)

Frederiksborg Castle. View near the Møntbro Bridge by Christen Købke (1836)

The final depiction of Frederiksborg Castle by Købke, which is my favourite was completed in 1836 and entitled Frederiksborg Castle.  View near the Møntbro Bridge.  This work depicts just part of the castle.  Unlike the other works this is not one of architectural accuracy as Købke has use artistic license to change some of the landscape, removing a promontory from the lake and adjusted the foliage in the foreground enabling us to get a clear view of the castle foundations as seen through the arches of the bridge, which in reality was not possible.  I like the colours used.  The sky is a delicate and pale blue.  The trees and the foliage are painted in restrained and somewhat muted greens whilst the brickwork of the castle walls has a pinkish-red tone.

So Høyen was well pleased with nationalist subject matter depicted in Købke’s Frederiksborg Castle works but what of the artist himself.  What did he think of Høyen’s views on nationalistic art?  From a passage in a letter to a friend we can see he was at best confused by Høyen’s views and somewhat cynical.  He wrote:

 “…What have politics, nationality and taxes to do with painterly effects and beautiful lines?   What does national art mean?   Does it mean politically Danish from border to border and all things within those boundaries?  Or does it mean Nordic, including Nordic history and the Sagas?…. No, just as the same sun shines over the entire world, art has no boundaries; it serves only beauty and truth…”

 In my next blog I will look at the latter years of Christen Købke’s life and his beautifully crafted portraiture.