The Master’s Hand
The exhibit hall in Copenhagen was packed, and the line to see the oil painting on display spilled out the front door and into the cobblestone street, past the neoclassical columns and peaked gables. Rain or shine, the people kept coming. When The Liberation of Prometheus was unveiled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1865, it drew crowds like few exhibits in Copenhagen have before or since. It was not just the enormous size of the canvas that drew the crowds—though it measured a gigantic 84 square feet. It was the message of hope the Greek half-god conveyed to a nation searching for its identity.
The exhibit secured artist Carl Heinrich Bloch’s status as one of the best-known Danish artists of his time. He would go on to paint commissions for churches, palaces, and the University of Copenhagen and would eventually hold prominent positions in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. But then, almost overnight, Bloch and his paintings fell out of favor, and he was all but forgotten at his death in 1890. It would take attention from an obscure church with headquarters half a world away to revive interest in the artist. Now, 120 years after Bloch’s death, the BYU Museum of Art has mounted a world-class exhibition dedicated to his art. Carl Heinrich Bloch has made a comeback.
Doodling in Class
Born May 23, 1834, in Copenhagen, Carl Bloch was one of 10 children of a middle-class merchant’s family. As a youth he prepared to be an officer in the navy, but he soon found that his passion lay elsewhere. Notes Dawn Chambers Pheysey (BS ’66), curator of BYU’s Bloch exhibition, “He had a drawing class, and he excelled in that, and so the drawing teacher gave him more difficult assignments than the other students.” The downside? He ignored his other studies. “At the final exam for getting into the naval academy, he failed in everything but drawing, writing, and swimming.” At that point, Bloch had the equivalent of today’s “so what do you want be when you grow up?” talk with his parents. He wanted to be an artist.
It was for the king’s oratory of the Frederiksborg Castle that Bloch spent 14 years (1865–79) painting 23 scenes from the life of Christ. These paintings quickly became popular and were reproduced for use by Danish Lutheran Sunday School teachers.
His parents—his mother in particular—were not thrilled. They did not see art as a viable way to support a family. Nonetheless, at age 15 Bloch entered Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where he received a traditional art education, studying the techniques of the old masters and learning the correct proportions of the human body by drawing from live models. His paintings won numerous awards, and in 1859, when Bloch was 25, he received a scholarship to study in Italy, the center of the art world at that time.
En route to Rome, Bloch traveled through Amsterdam, where he saw the works of the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69). Bloch was deeply affected by the Dutchman’s use of chiaroscuro, and he came to adopt this use of contrasting light and dark tones in his own work, especially his religious paintings. And viewing Rembrandt’s compassionate treatment of subjects—even common people with no social status—bolstered Bloch’s interest in painting everyday people and everyday moments.
During his six years in Italy, Bloch found himself immersed in masterpieces of the past, from ancient Roman sculpture to Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Bloch developed his own skills as he closely studied the works of past artists and painted and exchanged ideas with living ones. While in Italy, Bloch turned to more lofty subjects of history and religion, completing large oil paintings of Samson and of the daughter of Jairus. And it was in Italy that Bloch completed The Liberation of Prometheus, commissioned by the 17-year-old King George I of Greece (a Dane by birth).
Before having the painting delivered to his throne room, King George allowed it to be sent to Denmark for exhibition. When Bloch returned to his Copenhagen home in 1865, after six years abroad, the massive work made him a star.
The Liberation of Prometheus communicated to so many Danes in part because it offered hope just a year after Denmark had suffered a crushing defeat to Prussia, resulting in the loss of its three southern territories and a third of its population. “King George saw himself as Prometheus,” says Anne-Mette Gravgaard, an art historian and priest at Davids Kirke in Copenhagen. “For the Danes, Prometheus was all of Denmark, rising again.” Bloch’s artwork contributed to his country’s sense of nationalism at a time when Denmark struggled to understand its identity in a complex and hostile world.
The Life of Christ on a Large Scale
One who attended the showing of The Liberation of Prometheus was industrialist J. C. Jacobsen, founder of the Carlsberg brewery in Denmark. Impressed with the skill of young Bloch, he commissioned him to paint canvases for Frederiksborg Castle, the royal residence in Hillerød, Denmark, which had been ravaged by fire in December 1859. In an alcove of the castle known as the king’s oratory, 23 paintings depicting the life of Christ had been irreparably damaged, and Bloch was hired to replace all 23. The commission took 14 years to complete. By the time he finished, Bloch was a nationally renowned artist, and his work commanded the highest prices.
Even as he rose to fame in Denmark, Bloch began the family his mother had feared he would be unable to support. Not long after accepting the Frederiksborg commission, in 1868, Bloch married Alma Trepka. A letter to his friend Hans Christian Andersen, penned two days after the marriage, reveals an exuberant newlywed. Bloch wrote, “My mind is full of joy and gratitude to God for everything that he has done for me.”1The two would have nine children, one of whom followed his father’s path and became an artist.
Painting the life of Christ for 14 years had a spiritual influence on the artist. Bloch’s own words on religion are scant, and the records that exist are often understated, even terse. He told one friend, “God helps me—that’s what I think, and then I am calm.”2 When questioned by a fellow artist whether he believed in Christ, he was said to have replied, “Yes, God knows I believe in Christ.”3 Yet art historian Gravgaard says she perceives a change in Bloch beginning with the paintings in the Frederiksborg oratory. “I think that those paintings made Bloch religious. He was a casual religious person before that time, not so serious in his belief. But because he began work on those paintings, the motifs came to him, and they transformed him.” BYU’s Pheysey agrees, noting that Bloch “considered his religious art his most significant contribution to the world.”
From the New Testament scenes, Bloch moved on to large-scale religious paintings, including altarpieces for eight Lutheran church buildings in Denmark and Sweden. In altarpieces such as Christ Blessing the Little Child, Christus Consolator, and Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda, Bloch highlighted the intimate, personal nature of Jesus’ ministry. By connecting the church altar to Christ’s focus on the one, says Gravgaard, Bloch’s paintings invite parishioners to contemplate their own relationship to the Savior as they approach the altar, which she describes as “the table from which we have our communion, where we take part in the meal together with Christ.”
Bloch’s altarpieces became widely popular, and many other congregations hired lesser-known artists to paint replicas of them. In all, Pheysey and her colleagues at the BYU Museum of Art have identified more than 160 churches throughout Scandinavia that house copies of Bloch’s paintings of Christ.
Despite widespread recognition, says Pheysey, Bloch struggled with self-doubt. “He was a very sensitive person and always doubted his own abilities. Even when all his contemporaries were praising him and he was winning awards and medals, he wondered if he was good enough.” That self-doubt led to empathy for the subjects of his art, she says. “I think he was able to recognize those traits in other people—their feelings and the things they struggled with.”
He also experienced his share of unhappiness. One letter to his friend Frederik Bøgh mused, “I am often bored with the world and desire to be dead.” Yet in these times of depression he found solace in the blessings God gave him. “When things are at their worst they then become their absolute best,” he went on. “Grey skies and rain splashing are part of [life]—one must be washed off thoroughly before one goes in to God.”4
Until the last years of his life, Bloch’s religious and secular work brought him national renown and international recognition. His work was exhibited throughout Europe, including at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878. It adorned the walls at the University of Copenhagen. Hans Christian Andersen and other luminaries of Bloch’s time sat for his portraits.
Beginning in the 1880s, however, in what must have seemed to him a sudden and devastating sea change, the art world dismissed Bloch and his artistic style. “Quite unexpectedly, all the conditions for [Bloch’s] enormous success collapsed,” writes art historian Patricia Berman. “Young artists . . . rebelled and turned to France, seeking new inspiration.” When that happened, “almost at once Bloch’s style became outmoded.”5 The movements associated with avant-garde art shifted the artistic capital from Rome to Paris, and by the 1880s, young Danish artists embraced the new trends, particularly Impressionism and Symbolism. Even two of Bloch’s greatest honors—his appointment as professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art and later his position as head of the academy’s school of painting—were tempered by the resulting departure of students who sought a more modernist education elsewhere.
For his part, Bloch saw the trends associated with modernism as amateurish, a sharp contrast to the painstakingly acquired skills of his own generation, according to Søren Edsberg, a Danish-born artist and proprietor of the Hope Gallery in Salt Lake City, which houses many Bloch paintings and engravings. “His comment was basically, ‘How dare they?’” says Edsberg. “He saw it as a mockery of everything that was great in art.”
The professional losses Bloch experienced in the 1880s were accompanied by personal grief: Alma passed away in 1886, leaving the 53-year-old widower to raise their large family alone. Bloch himself followed just four years later—dying Feb. 22, 1890.
Within decades, Bloch became a mere footnote in the story of 19th-century art. Even his monumental altarpieces fell out of favor as the Lutheran Church in Denmark began to show a preference for more abstract art—or even no art at all—in its churches. Bloch’s figurative, didactic paintings of the life of Christ became to some a source of embarrassment.
And so might have ended the story of Carl Bloch, one among countless forgotten artists passed by when art history books are written. But instead, nearly 70 years after his death, a new audience discovered the artist, and interest in the paintings was rekindled.
The story of Bloch’s return to prominence began in the 1950s, when the editors of the Improvement Era, the official magazine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, used some of his work. Then, in 1962, the editors prepared to publish a set of full-page color illustrations of Christ as teaching aids for parents and instructors. After scrutinizing hundreds of paintings of Christ, the magazine staff settled on the works of Carl Bloch, whose “powerful use of light and shadow” and “accurate draftsmanship and the all but perfect structural qualities of his figures” marked him as a master portrayer of Christ’s life.6
Nathan N. Waite is an editor on the Joseph Smith Papers Project.