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For Christoffer Eckersberg, Less Is More

It was a long time coming for the “father of Danish painting” but 150 years after his death, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg will finally get his due when an intimate exhibit of 50-some of his works opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

Had he been in Congress, Eckersberg no doubt would have qualified for membership in Roll Call’s “Obscure Caucus” — those hard-working lawmakers largely unknown outside of their district boundaries. Indeed, despite his considerable artistic achievements, Eckersberg has never before been the subject of a one-man show outside of his native Denmark.

And at first glance, it’s not hard to understand why. There is nothing grand about the portraits, nudes, landscapes and marine scenes included in the exhibit — most are on the smaller side and, with the exception of a few stiff poses of wealthy benefactors and other prominent personnages, nearly all depict life’s ordinary moments.

But it is precisely in the preservation of these quotidian places and scenes that Eckersberg — dubbed “the quiet observer of everyday Danish life and landscapes” by curator Philip Conisbee — shines, wielding his brush to produce highly detailed renderings of everything from Danish peasants to royal steamships and from cumulus clouds to altarpieces.

Born in 1783, Eckersberg trained first at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where he initially aspired to be a history painter with rather disappointing results — if a rather stilted interpretation of “Alexander the Great on His Sickbed” can be taken as representative of his efforts — before heading to Paris at the height of the Napoleonic era for a year of rigorous study under the eye of the great French neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David.

Not until arriving in Rome in 1813, however, did Eckersberg, at least as depicted in this exhibit, begin to come into his own as an artist.

There is something to be said for the individual who understands his limits, a virtue Eckersberg early on appeared to possess. Dissatisfied with one of his large history paintings of a scene from Ovid’s “The Metamorphoses,” Eckersberg cut away much of the canvas, leaving nothing but the sublimely simple image of a servant girl asleep in the corner. And in keeping with the general principle that with Eckersberg less is more, a nearby suite of charming petite, plein-air Roman views serves as a tantalizing amuse-bouche to the exhibit’s true pleasures, which come in the second of the show’s two rooms.

Eckersberg’s 1816 return to Copenhagen was propitious — the recent end of the Napoleonic wars coincided with a renewed interest in the nation’s cultural traditions and the beginning of the “Golden Age” of Danish painting. And from his perch as professor at the Royal Academy, Eckersberg began churning out the highly refined works that would earn him his patriarchal artistic reputation.

Among the standout pieces from Eckersberg’s later period are a selection of nudes (as a professor, Eckersberg would pioneer the use of the female nude at the Royal Academy) set in domestic interiors, which show the female form in various degrees of dishabille, including the exhibit’s signature piece, “Woman in Front of a Mirror” — where an oval looking glass captures the reflective visage of a young, downward-looking figure, her gown clinging tenuously to the area just below her hips.

A subscriber to naval and meteorological journals, who kept a weather diary, Eckersberg was also adept at portraying the nautical scenes and cloudy horizons that so captured his imagination.

“He loved nature,” said Conisbee. “He had almost a religious attitude towards it.” Such devotion is evident in the ever-present fixation on cloud formations, running through nearly all of his non-portraiture work — and even making its way into the exhibit’s lone altarpiece, a painting of “The Last Supper,” where a smattering of clouds can be seen drifting beyond a darkened window.

While Eckersberg clearly excelled at depicting the obvious, he also experimented with more enigmatic scenes — a pair of which, “Langebro Bridge in Copenhagen with Running Figures” and “View through a Doorway” showing Danes on the run, offer the viewer no easy answers. Where are they running? What draws their attention? Eckersberg playfully leaves us guessing.

Eckersberg, who died in 1853, left behind a vast body of work, as well as a reputation as Denmark’s most influential art teacher. That didn’t translate into international prestige or widespread acclaim beyond the Baltic Sea, but then again, sometimes genius has to wait to get its due.

“Christopher Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1783-1853,” runs from Nov. 23 to Feb. 29, 2004, at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. On Sunday, Curator Philip Conisbee will give a lecture on Eckersberg and the Golden Age of Danish painting at 2 p.m. in the East Building Auditorium. For a complete listing of activities related to the exhibit, go to www.nga.gov.

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