Author: Andy Shield
Frederik Vermehren (1823-1910) painted in a style that was rooted in the traditional beliefs of the 'Danish Golden Age'. With ultra-fine details, he carefully laid every mark to create a near-perfect likeness of the scene before him. He was truly a master of his art.
In this piece from 1855, we see a shepherd standing before a vast desolate landscape. Sheep are grazing to his right as he quietly knits from a small ball of wool. Note the balance in the composition - you couldn’t place him anywhere else and get the same effect. Note also how his stick appears to almost rest on the horizon, while his feet are entrenched in the land. This is a man immersed in nature, in every sense a part of his environment.
Vermehren possessed an artistic honesty that only a few Danes could match during his lifetime. He relentlessly pursued accuracy and created an arduous process to ever-improve his output. Interiors were carefully mapped out and models posed for hours. Pigments were tirelessly mixed and colours applied in thin layers and glazes.
In this work from 1892, titled ‘In the artist’s studio’, two friends are discussing a painting with one seemingly in deep thought. Perhaps it’s a portrait? Did the outcome match the expectation?
The light and shade are skilfully observed with Vermehren agonising over every aspect. Note how the seated lady is brightly lit to provide a visual starting point. The verticals are also interesting with the standing lady giving the composition balance. Her perfect posture is in contrast to her friend’s and draws us to the artist in the background.
Vermehren’s intelligent details and obsession for accuracy are reminiscent of the Dutch old master, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). I’m sure that Vermehren was a keen follower and probably referenced him during his time teaching at the Danish Academy. Vermeer’s finesse is unparalleled but Vermehren certainly came close.
Gustav & Sophus
At the age of 40, Frederik became a father to Gustav and three years later, to Sophus. He was in the prime of his career - highly respected by his peers and becoming increasingly popular as a portraitist. It’s fascinating to consider how his boys were raised amid such a lively artistic community. Vermehren was well connected and his home was surely a hive of activity.
Both Sophus and Gustav were taught how to draw from an early age, which provided the foundation for their formal art education. With their father’s help, they refined their artistry and then continued to develop at the Academy.
It was such an interesting time for emerging artists as opinions were shifting towards the work of the Impressionists in France. By 1893, painters such as P.S. Kroyer (1851-1909) were creating impressionistic masterpieces such as this.
The advent of impressionism led to the sons being pulled in two directions. Their father remained rooted in his traditional beliefs - yet the middle classes were swaying towards modernity. Impressionism was becoming the fashion-a-la-mode for those ‘in the know’.
So what did they do? Continue to paint as their father had taught them or turn away and embrace the avant-garde?
Intriguingly, they both retained their father’s precision and tight brushwork but Sophus took a step away to embrace a new class of patron. Note how Sophus’ work differs in terms of mood, light and subject.
Oh to be a fly on the wall during the early 20th-century and observe some of the heated discussions between Frederik and his sons. Unquestionably, this was a family immersed in their art - each striving for perfection - but did they all agree?
Today, their timeless snapshots of yesteryear remain a fitting tribute to their dedication and craft. They recorded precise interiors that are frozen in time for future generations to admire.