Marstrand, Wilhelm (1810-1873) — 1840 Portrait of Edward Lear (National Portrait Gallery, London, UK)

Marstrand, Wilhelm (1810-1873) — 1840 Portrait of Edward Lear (National Portrait Gallery, London, UK)

Pencil; 18.2 x 11 cm.

Nicolai Wilhelm Nikolaj Marstrand, painter and illustrator, was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. Marstrand is one of the most renowned artists belonging to the Golden Age of Danish Painting.

Marstrand studied at Copenhagen’s Metropolitan School, but had little interest in books, and left at 16. Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, painter and professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen, was a close friend of Wilhelm’s father, and it was Eckersberg who recommended an artistic career for young Wilhelm. Wilhelm had already shown artistic talent, tackling difficult subjects such as group scenes with many figures and complicated composition. He attended the academy from 1826 to 1833. Although his interests had a firm hold in genre themes — depiction of the daily life he observed around him in Copenhagen’s streets, especially middle class society — he would soon reach for the pinnacle of Academic acceptability: history painting. History painting displayed what was grand — classical themes from mythology and history, rather than daily life. The traditions, and the taste of traditional art critics, strongly favored it. It was therefore something to strive for, in spite of Marstrand’s equal skill at depicting more modest themes, and of the enjoyment he had in portraying the crowds and the diversions of the city. At this time Christian Waagepetersen, wine merchant to the Danish court and supporter of the arts, also became an important patron for Marstrand.

Despite an unmistakably growing recognition, Marstrand never received the Academy’s gold medal. This medal was coveted not only for its great prestige, but also because it came with a travel stipend. Marstrand’s attempts at winning the medal were unsuccessful both in 1833 with his neoclassical "Flight to Egypt" and in 1835 with "Odysseus and Nausikaa". He won both available silver medals in 1833. Gold medal or not however, the Academy awarded Marstrand a travel stipend. In August 1836 he began the first of his many travels, going by way of Germany to Rome. In Italy, where he stayed for four years, he painted many idealized depictions of daily life, especially festivities. He was enchanted with Italy and with the ways of life of the Italian people. He portrayed a colorful, joyous, and romantic view of them, infused with a new found ideal of beauty. He also painted a number of portraits during this first stay in Italy.

Marstrand returned to Denmark at the end of 1841. He became a member of the art Academy in 1843, after submitting the painting "Erasmus Montanus" as his admissions piece. He became a professor at the Academy in 1848. Among his students were the two most renowned Skagen painters Peder Severin Krøyer and Michael Ancher, as well as Carl Bloch and Kristian Zahrtmann. Marstrand continued to travel regularly around Europe throughout his life. Marstrand also continued to apply inspiration from Italy in his paintings. He now supplied it with themes from literature and the theatre. He also continued to paint genre paintings, and to make sketches, caricatures, and drawings, capturing the spirit of his time with gentle or more biting satire.

In 1850 Marstrand married Margrethe Christine Weidemann, with whom he was to have five children. His family became yet a new source for his art. Marstrand returned to portrait painting with even more seriousness in the late 1850s. During the 1850s and 1860s, and especially after the death of his wife in 1867, he finally turned to religious themes. He also gave renewed attention to mythology and history. He painted two remarkable great murals for King Christian IV’s chapel in Roskilde Cathedral in 1864-1866. He painted an important altarpiece at Faaborg Church. At the same time, during the last ten years of his life, part of his work became very intimate. A series of paintings made during the last 6 years of his life featured a naked woman, while others were deeply religious.

To his contemporaries and a further few generations, Marstrand ranked among Denmark’s great painters of all time. Certainly, he was vastly productive and mastered a remarkable variety of genres — his disinterest for landscape art being a notable exception. More relevant today is the rather striking number of his works which are now familiar signposts of Danish history and culture: scenes from drawing-rooms and streets of Copenhagen during his younger days; the festivity and public life captured in Rome; the many representative portraits of citizens and innovators; even the monumentalist commissions for university and monarchy. Still, as the 20th Century progressed, his work had become less valued artistically and downright unfashionable; conversely, recent decades seem to have afforded new appreciation.

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