The metamorphoses that swept European painting in the 19th century were dramatic, often abrupt, and stylistically further apart than their dates would suggest. In "Danish Painting from the Golden Age to the Modern Breakthrough," on display at Scandinavia House in Manhattan, 37 masterworks from the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the early 20th century offer up beautiful works along with some surprises.
Two works at the start hint at the breadth and the continuity of the works exhibited. J. Th. Lundbye's "Landscape Near Lake Arresø," 1838, is a 19th-century idyll, the freshness and simplicity of its warm green and pearl gray-blue palette lending a charming sense of air and light to the scene. In fluid daubs, shadows among the stands of trees indicate the direction of the light as a low rise in the land leads to the gauzy distant tones, little clouds jutting across the sky to the horizon.
In "Landscape from Virum Near Frederiksdal, Summer," 1888, one of several paintings by Vilhelm Hammershøi, we sense the early stirrings of modernism. An open field occupies the lower half of the picture plane, separated from the humid sky above by a thin ribbon of low buildings and trees in an atmospheric shorthand taking the colors down a notch. Blades atop a distant windmill are a clever brake on the composition's strong horizontal bands.
Modernism and French Impressionism, along with advances in modern chemistry that put new colors on artist's palettes, led to the close study of the effects of light on outdoor subjects. In Laurits Tuxen's "Collecting Mussels at Low Tide," 1888, the bulky forms of a distant village of steep-angled roofs and chimney pots become a horizontal mass of limited gray-violet values, as strong, dazzling reflections flash vertically along the water to silhouette the figures bent at their labor.
"Summer Day," 1888, Harold Slott-Møller's large, modernist canvas of two figures standing at the beach, has an incredibly fresh sense of space and light. It anticipates the works of Hopper and other 20th century painters in the simplicity of its forms which become almost abstract when one gets up very close to the work.
Look at the leg of the figure on the left, and at the forearm of the figure on the right. It's wonderful how these are not labored over but instead are laid down instinctively. The dresses -- reflected light and soft shadow, stripes of pink and baby blue -- are incredible compositions worth studying for their brevity and sureness.
The creative possibilities of the new colors are shown in two paintings by Anna Ancher, both examples of the high-keyed, modern palette. In "Young Girl Reading a Letter," date unknown, weird, muddy browns bump up against acidic greens to describe a room's dim interior along with the figure of a woman standing before an intensely bright window, the orange-red of a potted geranium providing a definite visual pop.
L.A. Smith's "Female Model Before a Mirror," 1841, is a fine example of the Neoclassical style favored throughout Europe before the rise of more modern painting styles. The simplicity and balance of the composition directs attention onto the gently sensual figure of the woman embodying the classical ideal, full-hipped and rounded, in an intimate moment of undress. Reflected back to us in a round mirror, she looks away in thought with her right arm raised to her braided hair.
A large canvas by Bertha Wegman, "Interior with a Bunch of Wild Flowers, Tyrol," c.1882, offers a complex still life composition set in a room's interior. The brushwork is fascinating. Looking closely one can see individual strokes that make up flowers, leaves, twigs, even reflections and elliptical edges of small items on the table. Underpainting is visible in some areas, especially the arrangements of flowers in the vase, easing the transitions between colors and surfaces.
Several interior scenes, including Hammershøi's "Interior with a Woman Standing," date unknown, place women alone and usually with their backs to the viewer, in domestic rooms where sound and color are equally hushed. The effect is one of uninterrupted silence, and perhaps loneliness, but without anxiety or isolation. It's a melancholy born of a limited palette, a cool-temperature geometry.
From Neoclassicism to Modernism, from sparkling Danish landscapes to quiet interiors, the current exhibit at Scandinavia House is a show worth seeing.
"Danish Paintings from the Golden Age to the Modern Breakthrough: Selections from the Collection of Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr." is on view through Saturday, January 18, 2014, at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10016, four blocks south of Grand Central Terminal.
More information about Robert Edward Bullock's work can be found bullockonline.com.