Conservatism and Rebellion - The Academy 1850-1900

A time of great upheaval for the Academy. Its methods of teaching attract fierce discussion – as do the many different views of art arising during this period

“In a vast, gloomy and grimy room, equipped only with easels and tall three-legged stools, the students were arranged in semi-circles around plaster torsos and heads. In the centre of one of these circles I was (…) shown a seat on a wooden crate. While the semi-circle around me were working after a female torso, I, being a beginner, was told to draw a modest plaster leaf on the torso’s plinth.” 

In this quote Emil Hannover describes his encounter with the primer class (literally known as “The Ordinary Preparatory Class) that had been the starting point for all new academy students from 1863 onwards: here they would draw after plaster casts of animals, architecture, ornaments and human figures. 
In his memoirs detailing his years at the academy from 1879 to 1883, Hannover describes himself as a “born oppositionist” who was convinced that the academy was utterly outmoded. 

Strongly conservative

The period 1850 to 1900 was a time of great upheaval in the history of the academy. New institutions arose to challenge its supremacy as alternative art schools were founded around 1880, and the arts themselves were changed by the so-called “modern breakthrough”: Realism, Naturalism, Impressionism.

At this point in time the academy was a strongly conservative institution: it used strict admission criteria, recruitment from its own ranks and lifelong memberships to sustain its own view of the world until the pressures of the outside world became too great. 

In the 1860s and 1870s the director of the academy, Ferdinand Meldahl, and academy professor Frederik Vermehren were important figures among the dominant national liberal/conservative majority in Denmark; a movement that set the agenda for almost all discussions on aesthetics, arts and art politics. 
With his long tenure as professor from 1873 to 1901, Vermehren taught several generations of artists; however, he came to occupy a position of fierce opposition to the younger artists due to his stubborn insistence on teaching methods that had been passed down directly from the venerable C.W. Eckersberg. 

Towards a new view of art 

Political disagreement played a crucial part in the many years of power struggles that characterized this period at the academy. However, different views of art also constituted a key factor and prompted the upheaval and changes that followed. 

The period from the early 1840s onwards to the mid-1860s were characterized by two distinct groupings: “The Høyenians” and “The Europeans”. The former belonged to the circle of the influential art historian N.L. Høyen, whose political allegiances lay with the national liberals, whereas “The Europeans” was a slightly vague term used to describe a group of highly diverse artists that opposed N.L. Høyen on political and/or artistic grounds, and who generally favoured a more international mode of artistic expression.

In the years around 1880 the academy was still greatly affected by the simultaneous existence of two dominant philosophies: the majority at the academy favoured a conservative, backward-looking way of thinking, one that was anchored in traditional values of edification and in a firm faith of a divinely ordered, meaningful world. They were opposed by a more positivistic, forward-looking mode of thought that emerged from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. 

Kunstnernes Frie Studieskole

By the early 1880s, dissent among the young artists had reached a crisis point. They were displeased with the teaching at the academy, which required several years of drawing after plaster casts before students were allowed to paint using real models. They were dissatisfied with the juried exhibitions held at Charlottenborg. And they were upset by the fact that students were given no influence at the academy as such.

The general dissatisfaction with the academy teaching prompted the opening of a new state-subsidized independent art school in 1882. Known as Kunstnernes Frie Studieskoler (literally “The Artists’ Free Study Schools”), the new school saw the eminent artists P.S. Krøyer and Lauritz Tuxen teaching their students based on inspiration from new art movements that they themselves had encountered in Paris. 
From 1885 to 1908 Kristian Zahrtmann headed one of the separate departments of the school; known as ”Zahrtmann’s School”, it would have a crucial impact on the future development of Danish painting. 

-    Larsen, Peter Nørgaard: ”Med ryggen mod fremtiden – Billedkunst i anden halvdel af 1800-tallet”; In Fuchs, Anneli & Salling, Emma (eds.) KUNSTAKADEMIET 1754-2004, Det Kongelige Akademi for De Skønne Kunster & Arkitekturs Forlag 2004, vol. I, pp. 119–185