Sunday, September 11, 2011

Nikolaj Abildgaard

Archangel Michael & Satan Disputing the Body of Moses

Jupiter Weighing the Fate of Mankind

Adrastus Slaying Himself at the Tomb of Atys

Scene From Voltaire's Triumvirate

Wounded Philoctetes


Richard III Awakening From His Nightmare

Diogenes & Alexander the Great

Hamlet Shows His Mother the Ghost of His Father

Angel with Architectural Triangle and Fasces


Portrait of Abildgaard by Jens Juel

Here is another contender for membership in my personal collection of forgotten painters. Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard (1743–1809) made a big artistic splash in his native Denmark, loaded with honors and commissions during his lifetime, but never seriously regarded outside his own local world  and largely forgotten even there after his death. If he is referred to nowadays, it is with condescension as an "academic painter" or "cold theorist".

In my own observation there are two major strands to Abildgaard's work. First came the great big nudes and mythological decorations of the 1770s when he chose to study in Rome (even though Paris was the center of the art world by that time). These paintings appeal to me because you can see Abildgaard struggling to fit the Baroque forms he was seeing all around him on every Roman wall and ceiling into the prevailing Neoclassical straitjacket.

Later, back home in Scandinavia, as teacher and court painter, he got interested in narrative scenes based on literary sources, clothing his figures (just like his famous and fashionable contemporary Fuseli, and also just like his then-obscure and unknown contemporary William Blake) in thin clinging early-Romantic draperies.

For my purposes, both phases of the career are full of entertainment value. And the idea of dismissing this artist as coldly academic seems preposterous in the face of his fascinating weirdness.