From the powerful Viking empire to the liberal democracy known for Legos and social welfare, the critical transition of Denmark into a modern state is often considered to have happened at the turn of the 19th Century. Allying with Napoleon Bonaparte, the Danish state was devastated by defeat in the Napoleonic Wars from the early 1800s. The loss of Norway as a partnering state and its status as a grand international trading center contributed to the financial turmoil. Denmark in the 19th century lingered on its last leg. 

The catastrophic state of the nation, nonetheless, sparked the patriotic spirit in Danish artists abroad. They sought to kindle nationalist sentiments through the revival of cultural conventions, representation of the Danish landscapes, and the realist depiction of Danish ports. The temporary exhibition “Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York displays a series of paintings and sketches produced in the era of Danish tumult, each seeming to yearn to depict the pride and scars of the once vibrant maritime empire. Showcasing works by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Martinus Rørbye, Johan Thomas Lundbye, and more Scandinavian painters, the display halls of “Beyond the Light” are embellished with the celebration of the Danish identity and reminiscent of past empirical glories, but not without a solemn tone of sorrow.  

“Copenhagen Harbor by Moonlight” (1846) displayed in the first hall of the exhibition, seizes the attention of viewers not only with its grand size compared to neighboring charcoal sketches, but by the distinctive colorito. The structure of the painting surrounds the illumination of the moon, half hidden behind mounting clouds that could connote potential rain; the remainder of the painting, the sky, and the waterfront are separated by the horizon built from the silhouette of edifices. In the field of view, workers can be seen laboring on the port, and closer to the source of light, cargo vessels and smaller fishing ships seem to be faring further away from the vision of the painter. The enthralling light sourced from the moon captures viewers immediately for the heavy juxtaposition from the overall dark surroundings accentuates its brightness. Moonlight shines upon the margins of buildings, ships, and faces, only adding to the solemnity of the ambiance. 

The painter of the piece is Johan Christian Dahl, a romantic painter from Bergen, Norway — then part of Denmark. Considered the “Father of Norwegian landscape painting,” the master was a skilled crafter at depicting sophisticated features of the natural scene of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Dahl was schooled in Copenhagen and quickly gained the artistic interest of Prince Frederick of Denmark after his education in fine arts. He would spend the majority of his years in Denmark, illustrating its architecture, landscapes, and maritime settlements. “Copenhagen Harbor” showcased his genius in depicting the night scene, characterizing the Danish identity as the seafaring state with the industrial scene surrounding the moonlight. Nonetheless, the faint night sky, tranquility of the water, and scattered workers reflect no sign of prominence. 

I nudged my art-indifferent roommate and asked about his most immediate feeling aroused from the painting. “It’s quiet, and it’s so sad,” he uttered after a long gaze at the painting from a distance. The Larsens Plads waterfront is, indeed, decked with overmounting, sorrowful transcendence in silence. 

C.W. Eckersberg, the “Father of Danish Painting,” was another highlighted artist in the exhibition. His return from traveling abroad and commencement to produce artworks representing Danish identity prompted the emergence of the Golden Age of Danish Art. Aside from the vibrant oil paintings of architecture produced during his travels in Europe, “Beyond the Light” displayed mostly his graphite sketches. “View from the Domed Hall at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen” (1845) is a demonstration of Eckersberg’s skills in capturing the angling of perspective succinctly, accurately reproducing the view from a hall condescending down from the mansion of Charlottenborg. By 1754, the Royal Danish Academy of Art had acquired the Charlottenborg Palace as its main establishment. Impossible to see the dome of the hall the artist is painting from, the sketch itself is heavily characterized by rational, straight lines and defined angles. The botanical embellishment from the off-center of the painting softens the heavy rationality. 

Among the Danish artists associated with the Golden Age of Danish Art is Constantin Hansen, a student at Eckersberg who also later followed the master’s footsteps to travel to Southern Europe. The most known piece of Constantin Hansen is “A Group of Danish Artists in Rome” (1837), displayed in the exhibition as a loan object from the National Gallery of Denmark. The background of the setting resembles Eckersberg’s “View from the Domed Hall” with the flinged open balcony and the birds-eye view of the exterior. The seven artists are centered in the painting as the main subjects, in conversation about the topic of art. Such an assembly represents the close-knit circle formed by the Danish artists involved in the artistic revival of Danish nationalism. Architect Gottelieb Bindsebøll, who is wearing an Ottoman fez that connotes his interest in antique objects and the Eurasian culture, reclines on the Turkish carpet as he recounts his journey with Martinus Rørbye in Greece. Outside of the Roman Hotel room are Italian cottages with terracotta tops and silhouettes of mountains poured into the room through the sunlight and bright sky. The circumference heavily “Italian” underscores the corner of “Danish-ness” represented by the seven conversing artists. 

In search of the lost glories, each Danish artist found their distinct way of representing the national identity through the portrayal of place, time, people, and nature. In the economic devastation and the ransacking of Copenhagen arose the reformation of culture that would later shape the perception of the Danish people on themselves, solidifying new-found national pride. From a struggling country living on the marginalized edges of the globe, the fostering of cultural nationalism brought a sense of hope and appreciation for the state to its people that allowed for persistence through years of hardship.