Frederiksværk in Easter, drawn by Johan Thomas Lundbye in 1841
The Golden Age was a period in Danish cultural and spiritual life that lasted from 1800 to 1850 - in this period art and culture truly flowered. To modern eyes, this time often seems bright, rich and harmonious but if you look at the socio- economic and political realities of the early part of the 19th century, it was a very tense time. In 1801 the Danes suffered a significant military defeat at the hands of the British and the country lost its naval fleet. Copenhagen again suffered greatly during the British bombardment of the capital in 1807. The Danish state went bankrupt in 1813 and Norway ceased to be a part of Denmark in 1814. From once being a vast kingdom, the country was significantly diminished during the Golden Age.
Despite the adverse conditions at the beginning of the period, creativity reached new heights – In science, art, literature and philosophy. A significant influence in this period was the spread of German romanticism. Copenhagen’s upper classes were the ones who had the means to support art and culture, and they allowed many artists to travel in Europe to find inspiration and develop the domestic art scene.
Norwegian waterfall, painted by Jacob Mathias Calmeyer in 1826
Painting in the Golden Age
One name is especially connected to the Golden Age, regarded as one of its defining artists, the painter and professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. The 1820’s saw a major renaissance in the artistic scene in Denmark; Copenhagen moved from being on the periphery of the European artistic scene to a centre in its own right. Eckersberg was a devotee of landscape painting where he favoured a particularly realistic artistic vision. Among Eckersberg's students were people who in turn went on to be leading artists such as; Wilhelm Bendz, Christen Kjøbke, Martinus Rørbye, Constantin Hansen and Wilhelm Marstrand. In Rome, the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen set up a home and workshop, and it was here that Danish artists gathered as they conducted their “Grand Tour” around Italy seeking artistic inspiration. In the world of music, composers such as J.P.E. Hartmann, H.C. Lumbye and Niels W. Gade became prominent and the ballet master August Bournonville developed a uniquely Danish ballet tradition.
Henrich Steffens and Adam Oehlenschläger walking in the Romantic park Søndermarken, by Carl Thomsen in 1895
Poetry in the Golden Age
At the beginning of the 19th century the old world view was re-interpreted through the lens of the poets and philosophers of the German Romantic Movement. From their viewpoint poetry should permeate the world; man should be in harmony with the universe, and art and science should reflect this vision. Inspired by the German poets, the scientist Henrich Steffens introduced romanticism to a Danish audience in 1801. The poet Adam Oehlenschläger began immediately incorporating the philosophy of German romanticism into Danish poetry. Oehlenschläger became the inspirational torchbearer for the new generation of young Danish writers. Along with Oehlenschläger the names of a number of other famous Danish authors are strongly associated with the Golden Age such as B.S. Ingemann, N.F.S. Grundtvig, Johan Ludvig Heiberg and Hans Christian Andersen - the creator of the modern fairy tale. Science and philosophy also flourished. The physicist H.C. Ørsted made his name in the world of physics with his discovery of electromagnetism in 1820. Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher. The Golden Age coincided with a general shift toward a national perspective in art and culture and, in turn, art became instrumental in building a Danish national identity. There was a newfound reverence for historical subjects, the landscape, Nordic mythology and folklore and these became important sources of inspiration for the poets of the Danish Golden Age. Between 1819 and 1820 Adam Oehlenschläger worked on the poem “There is a Lovely Country” which later became the Danish national anthem.
To this day the Golden Age is of great importance for Danish literature and culture. The tales of Hans Christian Andersen received international recognition during his lifetime and have now been published in 150 languages. The poems of Adam Oehlenschläger created the foundation for a literary tradition in Denmark that endures to this day.