Painting in Light: a Journey through Impressionism and the Danish Golden Age
French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, born in the Danish Virgin Islands, once wrote, “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” He wasn’t necessarily speaking of art buyers, but the statement holds true for Danish collectors Wilhelm and Henny Hansen, who had a discerning eye for the beauty in unassuming things.
That discerning eye is clearly evident in the works on view in Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection at the National Gallery of Canada. A Delacroix painting captures George Sand listening to her lover Chopin playing the piano. Daumier’s over-the-hill wrestler slumps as he contemplates the arena before him. Motes of dust dance through a shaft of sunlight in an otherwise empty interior by Hammershøi.
“The Hansens were among the great European collectors of their time,” says Erika Dolphin, NGC Associate Curator to the Chief Curator. “They owned beautiful works by each artist, making the exhibition a nice survey of Impressionism on the cusp of modern art as it developed during the 20th century, as well as a delightful look at examples of Danish art we don’t see as often.” Amassed between 1892 and 1931, the collection represents a virtual who’s-who of French Impressionists and painters of the Danish Golden Age. Look more closely, however, and you will find an array of quiet, introspective works that have a strikingly similar feel.
The subtle loveliness of the works in this collection belie a couple who instinctively bought what they liked. Despite living through one of the most socially and artistically turbulent periods in human history, the Hansens did not hew to popular wisdom, instead choosing intimate works that dazzle without being showy. “They were conservative in some ways,” says Dolphin, “and definitely had a limit as to how modern they would go. I don’t think they liked anything that verged on abstraction. The most modern works in the collection are likely the paintings by Hammershøi.”
By all accounts, Wilhelm Hansen and his wife Henny were an engaging and sociable couple. After collecting a large number of Impressionist works over a dizzying two-year period during the First World War, the couple threw open their private home, Ordrupgaard, inviting others to share their delight in the art collection one afternoon a week. They were also slightly eccentric, wherein may lie part of their charm. One of the more endearing causes embraced by both Wilhelm and Henny was promotion of a universal language known as Volapük. Wilhelm even became an instructor of Volapük, which has been described as “like Esperanto, but more difficult.” Not surprisingly, it never truly caught on.
The 77 works in the exhibition include many of the Hansens’ earliest acquisitions. Wilhelm became interested in art as a student and in 1892 — a year after he and Henny were married —bought a small study of a cow by Danish artist Johan Thomas Lundbye. It wasn’t until 1910, however, that the real buying spree began. Wilhelm was by then a well-established corporate executive and public figure, and was making frequent business trips to France.
In Paris, he would visit auction houses, dealers and studios — often with one of his artist or gallerist friends. After making his purchases, he would write to Henny somewhat sheepishly that, yes, he’d bought more paintings, but she would love them as much as he did. “One of the things I like about the collection,” says Dolphin, “is that it has some wonderful works by women. Of the paintings on view here, Berthe Morisot’s Portrait of Madame Marie Hubbard (1874) is a particular favourite, with its subtle reference to Manet’s Olympia. There is also a nice work by Eva Gonzalès.”
The Hansens were credited in their lifetimes with rejuvenating or even making the reputations of some artists, including Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro. Their original plan was to buy at least a dozen works by each of the French Impressionists, “from Corot to Cézanne.” This occasionally led the art-buying market to note an artist’s sudden spike in popularity and quickly follow suit.
After the First World War the Hansens began buying again, this time as part of a consortium. Never really viewing art as an investment, Wilhelm was appalled at the inflated prices being charged in the post-war world. While curtailing their purchasing, the Hansens still acquired a number of important new works. “Although they’re not on view in the exhibition,” says Dolphin, “the Ordrupgaard Collection also has sculptures and works on paper. The number of Danish works collected by the Hansens is also larger than the number of French works, which may surprise people who think of the collection as largely French Impressionist.”
Sadly, some of the original collection was sold off in the 1920s to settle a corporate debt Wilhelm felt duty-bound to repay. Once their finances were restored, however, the Hansens began purchasing again, adding forty new works, including paintings by Corot, Delacroix, Daumier and Courbet, before their final acquisition, Degas’ pastel Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper (c. 1879), in 1931.
“A picture,” wrote Delacroix, “is nothing but a bridge between the soul of an artist and that of the spectator.” Impressionist Treasures is not only a look at exquisite works from one of the most exciting periods in art history, but also a glimpse into the souls of two collectors who knew what they liked, and took immense pleasure in sharing it with the wider world.
Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from May 18 to September 9, 2018. The accompanying catalogue is available from the NGC Boutique. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.