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Saturday volcano art: Christen Købke, ‘The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the distance’ (1841) 22 August 2009

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Christen Købke, 'The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance' (1841)

The Danish painter Christen Købke (1810-1848) died young at 38, but in his short career he produced some of the most innovative and distinctive European landscape painting of the first half of the nineteenth century. He was a pupil of the celebrated landscape painter C. W. Eckersberg (1783-1853), one of the leading figures of Golden Age Danish art. Most of Købke’s landscape studies were of places near his home in Copenhagen – his father was a master baker who leased the army bakery in the city’s Citadel, and the family made their home within the fortress. Kobke produced numerous studies of scenes in and around the Citadel in which deceptively free brushwork and almost impressionistic atmospheric effects are constrained by unusual, highly structured compositions and restrained but lucid colour schemes.

Købke journeyed to Italy in 1838, visiting Venice, Florence and Naples, and upon returning to Denmark in September 1840 devoted himself largely to painting Italian subjects derived from studies he had made while Italy. The scenery around Naples proved particularly inspiring for Købke, and he painted a number of pictures of the Bay of Naples and scenes around Vesuvius. The picture illustrated here, ‘The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance’ (1841) is one of the paintings dating from this period.

In this painting Købke has chosen a typically unusual viewpoint: relatively low down, so that Vesuvius is glimpsed through a screen of classical columns and ruined walls. The long shadows being cast from the right – the east – show that the time is early morning, and the atmosphere of the still morning, with mist just rolling away from the slopes of the volcano and a flawless blue sky holding promise of heat to come, is powerfully conveyed. Although the volcano is partially obscured its low contours and dark, scored flanks dominate the scene. The simplicity of its brooding shape contrasts with the litter of ancient remnants in the foreground: shattered columns, overgrown carvings, the empty roadway leading away into a landscape of ruins. The painting is a meditation on the spirit of place, the passing of time, the transience of all man-made things.

Christen Købke’s ‘The Forum at Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance’ is in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. If you’re in London next spring you can take in the exhibition Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery (17 March-10 June 2010).

Further reading
Christen Købke, 1810-1848 (exhibition catalogue, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen)
Torsten Gunnarsson, Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998)
Catherine Johnston et al, Baltic Light: Early Open-Air Painting in Denmark and North Germany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999)
Sanford Schwartz, Christen Købke (New York: Timken, 1992)

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