Just to get this out of the way, though something about this picture looks a little … off, I love it unreservedly. It is by Christen Købke, born today in 1810, and depicts his friend and confidant, the landscape painter Frederik Hansen Sødring (1809-1862).
Købke painted portraits, landscapes and architectural paintings. He liked to paint things close-at-hand (like yesterday’s landscape that was almost right outside his door), and the vast majority of Købke’s portraits depict friends, family members and fellow artists. This beautifully composed work is emblematic of his innate sense of coloration and his mastery of everyday life. In 1832 Købke shared a studio with Sødring, and painted this portrait which now hangs in the Hirschsprung Collection.
Sødring was the son of a merchant, and was born in Aalborg. He lived in Norway before studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen (beginning in 1825). He married Henriette Marie de Bang (1809–1855), and had several children before dying at the early age of 52. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was one of his beneficiaries, where he established a scholarship in his name and left money for the widows of landscape painters.
We know that Købke and Sødring were great friends, but know very little about the actual mechanics of their friendship. Though married himself, to Susanna Cecilie Købke (1810–1849) in 1837, Købke had a gift for enduring male friendships. He was often traveling across Continent with brother landscape painters, and seems to have spent little time at home.
Now, take a moment to look at this wonderful picture. To the modern eye, something seems a tad off in the composition: one wonders if Sødring’s head is a tad too large, or if his body haunches unnecessarily in the middle. I think, while looking at it, that these issues resolve themselves when we see that Købke set himself the difficult task of capturing Sødring in an unusually convoluted pose. The young artist perches on the edge of the chair, drapes his body backward, while thrusting his head forward and shifting slightly to the side.
At first, this seems unnecessarily fussy until one realizes that this is exactly how a painter would sit while backing away from his easel. His trousers bunch up and puff around his pelvis because his body is sliding within them while the seat of his pants stays on the chair. When one realizes the challenge that Købke set for himself, the result is nothing short of astonishing.
Now, look at the frank and friendly countenance of Sødring and you will see not only the charming ruddy completion of a northern European, but you’ll notice that his left eyebrow is starting to beetle. Then, Købke captures the lines of his shirt and the pattern of his silk vest with a minimum of fussiness. And speaking of attention to detail: look closely at the thumb struck through the palette and you will notice that there is a smudge of paint on Sødring’s thumb. The paints on his extended palette are arranged in color-wheel order, and the wood bears the paint stains of previous use.
There is so much in this picture to admire. I love the panels in the wall; I love the creeping flower behind him; I love the top of his own easel reflected in the mirror above him. This picture seems so careless, so effortless, but closer inspection reveals that it is a work of great detail, subtlety and affection.