Danish Golden Age 1800 -1850

The Danish Golden Age (Danish: Den danske guldalder) covers a period of exceptional creative production in Denmark, especially during the first half of the 19th century. Although Copenhagen had suffered from fires, bombardment and national bankruptcy, the arts took on a new period of creativity catalysed by Romanticism from Germany. The period is probably most commonly associated with the Golden Age of Danish Painting from 1800 to around 1850 which encompasses the work of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and his students, including Wilhelm Bendz, Christen Købke, Martinus Rørbye, Constantin Hansen and Wilhelm Marstrand, as well as the sculpture of Bertel Thorvaldsen.

It also saw the development of Danish architecture in the Neoclassical style. Copenhagen, in particular, acquired a new look, with buildings designed by Christian Frederik Hansen and by Michael Gottlieb Bindesbøll.

In relation to music, the Golden Age covers figures inspired by Danish romantic nationalism including J. P. E. Hartmann, Hans Christian Lumbye, Niels W. Gade and the ballet master August Bournonville. Literature centred on Romantic thinking, introduced in 1802 by the Norwegian-German philosopher Henrik Steffens. Key contributors were Adam Oehlenschläger, Bernhard Severin Ingemann, N. F. S. Grundtvig and, last but not least, Hans Christian Andersen, the proponent of the modern fairytale. Søren Kierkegaard furthered philosophy while Hans Christian Ørsted achieved fundamental progress in science. The Golden Age thus had a profound effect not only on life in Denmark but, with time, on the international front too.

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The origins of the Golden Age can be traced back to around the beginning of the 19th century. Surprisingly, this was a very rough period for Denmark. Copenhagen, the centre of the country’s intellectual life, first experienced huge fires in 1794 and 1795 which destroyed both Christiansborg Palace and large areas of the inner city. In 1801, as a result of the country’s involvement in the League of Armed Neutrality, the British fleet inflicted serious damage on the city during the Battle of Copenhagen. In 1807, on rumours that the French might force Denmark to close the Baltic to their shipping, the British once again bombarded Copenhagen, this time specifically targeting the city and its civilian population. Then in 1813, as a result of the country’s inability to support the costs of war, Denmark declared a State bankruptcy. To make matters worse, Norway ceased to be part of the Danish realm when it was ceded to Sweden the following year.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, the Golden Age of Danish Painting emerged to form a distinct national style for the first time since the Middle Ages; the period lasted until the middle of the century. It has a style drawing on Dutch Golden Age painting, especially its landscape painting, and depicting northern light that is soft but allows strong contrasts of colour. The treatment of scenes is typically an idealized version of reality, but unpretentiously so, appearing more realist than is actually the case. Interior scenes, often small portrait groups, are also common, with a similar treatment of humble domestic objects and furniture, often of the artist’s circle of friends. Little Danish art was seen outside the country (indeed it mostly remains there to this day) although the Danish-trained leader of German Romantic painting Caspar David Friedrich was important in spreading its influence in Germany.

During the Golden Age, Copenhagen in particular acquired a new look as architects inspired by neo-classicism repaired much of the damage caused by fire in 1795 and by the British bombardment of the city in 1807.

The leading players in the Danish Golden Age have not only had a lasting impact in Denmark, but throughout the world. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales have been translated into over 150 languages, more than any book apart from the Bible, and continue to be read to children everywhere. With the exception of Norwegian-born Ludvig Holberg, no Danish writer before 1870 exercised so wide an influence as Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger. His work was to awaken his compatriots’ enthusiasm for the poetry and religion of their ancestors, to the extent that his name remains to this day synonymous with Scandinavian romance.