• Ill. 1. Niels Simonsen, Vue du port d’Alger, 1843, Huile sur toile, 66,5 x 102,5 cm; Collection privée.

Niels Simonsen was part of the “European” movement in Danish art. Where so many of his compatriots settled for conjuring up Nordic ambience or taking off on study trips to Paris or Rome, he travelled all over Europe in the course of a career that collected all kinds of influences. This made him a dissenting figure during Danish painting’s “Golden age”, with its nationalistic  response to the conflicts that had lacerated the country and plunged it into a crisis affecting its identity, economy and territorial status.


Barely sixteen when he enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Simonsen studied there under Johan Ludvig Lund, especially well known for his religious and historical subjects. Simonsen later spent ten years in Munich, continuing his studies at the Academy there, then set off on travels that included southern Germany, the Austrian Tyrol, Italy and Sweden. He returned home loaded with landscapes, mostly of mountains and seashores, together with some quite expressive close-up portraits. Success came in Denmark when he painted major battles from the Schleswig Wars, with their clashes between the Danish duchies and Prussia in 1848 and 1864.


During a stay of several months in Algeria in 1840 he discovered a country that had been under French domination for the past ten years. He painted many views of Algiers and its environs (ill. 1, see p. 78), topographically accurate enough, together with picturesque portrayals of Arabs. At this time Louis-Philippe of France commissioned from Horace Vernet a series of paintings of the battles leading to the conquest of the capital, Algiers, then of the country as a whole: the purest propaganda, drawing directly on ethnographic sket ches made in the field. Bound by no such political obligations, Simonsen was uninterested in military matters and the exercise of power; rather he was concerned with catching the city’s shape and essence, its light and the clarity of its air. Given its skill and polish, our View of Algiers from Outside the Walls was most certainly painted in the studio from sketches made outdoors. There is a fine chromatic unity about this and other examples of his works of observation, which in most cases combine interlockings of strongly lit white buildings with a patch of luxuriant greenery – mainly cactus and agave – treated as a still life in its own right. Simonsen’s views of Algeria make him one of the principal representatives of that rare phenomenon, Danish Orientalist painting. Bringing a Nordic feel for light to his subjects, he blocks in sections of walls with simple areas of flat colour, in the manner of a Martinus Rørbye, while his attentiveness to grass, leaves and plants is reminiscent of Peter Christian Skovgaard. Unlike his Danish fellow-painters, though, he displays a receptiveness to others in pictures that avoid the stereotypes and models of his country’s golden age.


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