Amazing Danish Impressionist art

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   July 30, 2002 at 11:48 AM
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NEW YORK, July 30 (UPI) -- Copenhagen is not generally considered a treasure trove of French Impressionist art, so a loan exhibition of a major collection from the Danish capital comes as a revelation to most American art lovers.

Eighty-four paintings from the Ordrupgaard Museum collection have already visited Baltimore and are now on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum through Sept. 8. Their final U.S. destination will be Houston, Oct. 6 - Jan. 5, 2003. The state-owned house museum on the outskirts of Copenhagen is closed for expansion, making possible this touring show.

The museum is located on a 14-acre site in the village of Ordrupgaard in the former country mansion of Danish insurance magnate Wilhelm Hansen. He began collecting Danish painting early in the last century, but he became attracted to French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art and formed the most important collection of 19th century French art in Northern Europe by the time of his death in1936.

Hansen built not just one but two collections of French paintings. He formed a sizable collection of Impressionist art at deflated prices during World War I and then had to sell 82 paintings, including seven Paul Cezannes, due to a financial setback suffered in a Danish bank collapse in 1922. As soon as he recouped his fortune two years later, he began buying again, building an even larger collection.

When Hansen was strapped for money to repay loans to the foundering bank, he offered his collection to the Danish government for a bargain price of about $120,000, but the offer was declined. He never forgot this slight, and stopped opening his collection to the public every Monday afternoon in retaliation.

When Hansen died, he left none of his art to Denmark, but his widow promised the collection would pass to the state if it was kept together as a museum collection, and the transfer was made after her death in 1951.

Of particular interest to American viewers are two of the eight oils and pastels by Edgar Degas on display. They were painted during Degas' visit to relatives in New Orleans in 1872-3 and are titled "Woman Seated on a Balcony" and "Yard of a House." One of the Degas pastels, "Three Dancers" dating from 1898, is one of his finest ballet performance scenes picturing ballerinas in red, yellow and blue tutus.

Also of note are the eight oils by Paul Gauguin on display at a time when the Metropolitan Museum is showing more than 120 works by Gauguin from New York State collections in a separate exhibit.

The Ordrupgaard Gauguins include the only known portrait commission ever undertaken by the artist, a charming likeness of Jeanne Goupil, daughter of a French merchant in Tahiti, as well as a depiction of Gauguin's own daughter, Aline. The paintings form a survey of Gauguin's entire career - Paris, Brittany, Arles where he stayed with Vincent Van Gogh, and the South Pacific.

Landscapes and cityscapes constitute an important part of the collection.

There are five lyrical canvases by Alfred Sisley that prove he was one of Impressionisms greatest landscape painters although he was the least successful financially. One of them, "Factory on the Banks of the Seine, Bougival," records the incursion of industry on the French countryside.

Camille Pissaro's "Rue Saint-Lazare, Paris," is one of his finest boulevard scenes, and Claude Monet's "Waterloo Bridge, Overcast (1903)" is an example of the artist's mastery of foggy atmospheric conditions, especially those encountered on his visit to London. The earliest citscape in the show is Honore Daumier's "Street Scene, Paris," a rarity painted in 1845.

The show is full of delightful surprises, such as the incomparable lightness and beauty of Berthe Morisot's "Young Girl in a Meadow," the only painting by a woman in the show except for "The Convalescent" by Eva Gonzales, a touching portrait of the artist's sister dressed in white. Eugene Delacroix's "Portrait of George Sand" provides the author with attractive womanly qualities that belie her nom de plume.

Other French painters represented are Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Eugene Boudin, Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Charles-Francois Daubigny, J.-A.-D. Ingres, Odilon Redon, and Henri Matisse, whose 1909 "Flowers and Fruits" ranks as one of his liveliest still lifes. There also are a selection of paintings by Danish artists of the early 19th century, known as the Golden Age of Danish art, as well as early 20th century artists of the Copenhagen school.

The greatest of this latter group is Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916), who is represented by five remarkable paintings. The originality of his Symbolist paintings stunned American viewers when he received his first retrospective U.S. exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1998.

There is much about Hammershoi's somber subject matter and his treatment of light in his spare interior studies that is reminiscent of the best work of Andrew Wyeth suggesting solitude and silence. A good example of this is "Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight" and "Interior with Piano and Woman in Black," both painted in the artist's Copenhagen home.

The show recalls an anecdote about Hansen that illustrates his enthusiasm for art and collecting. He is said to have shown Manet's small, almost three-dimensional still life, "Basket of Pears" to his guests at a dinner party, asking them to enjoy it as their "extra dessert."

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