Golden Age portrait of Danish-West Indian slave boy acquired by Ordrupgaard

Ordrupgaard has acquired a hitherto unknown work of art, Portrait of a Boy, painted by the world-famous artist Camille Pissarro. The painting is a dazzling example of the influence of the Danish Golden Age on the artist, who is known as the father of Impressionism.

At the international auction of the Bruun Rasmussen auction house in May, a completely unknown work by the legendary Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) suddenly surfaced. The highly unusual work, Camille Pissarro, Portrait of a Boy, undated and unsigned, oil on canvas, (37 x 30 cm) has now been secured a future on Danish soil in the Ordrupgaard collection. The work can now be seen at Sorø Kunstmuseum until January 13th 2019

Young Danish artist in the Danish West Indies

Although Pissarro is primarily known as a French Impressionist, he was a Danish citizen throughout his life – born and raised on the island of St. Thomas in what was then the Danish West Indies. Ordrupgaard’s newly-acquired Portrait of a Boy belongs in this geographical and cultural context, and is a unique example of the early phase of Pissarro’s life and artistic development.

Export ban

Pissarro gave Portrait of a Boy to the lawyer Hermann Meier Hjernøe shortly before Pissarro’s departure to Paris, and it has remained in the ownership of the Hjernøe family ever since. The work is absolutely unique in Danish art history: a Danish Golden Age portrait of an African boy, painted by one of the greatest of the French Impressionists – a highly unusual cocktail. There are a large number of Golden Age portraits in Danish art museums, but a representation of an African boy – probably one of the former slave children in the Danish West Indies – is a true rarity among the Golden Age portraits, which mostly depict the white bourgeoisie. It was therefore imperative for Ordrupgaard and the Danish Commission on the Export of Cultural Assets that the work should remain in Denmark, for which reason it has been banned from export.

Father of Impressionism with roots in the Danish Golden Age

The painting is not only a rarity in Danish museums, but also in Pissarro’s own work. Pissarro is often called the ‘father of Impressionism’, and in the course of his impressive painting career he co-operated closely with artists such as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. But Pissarro was also formed by the Danish Golden Age tradition through his meeting with Fritz Melbye, a Danish marine and landscape painter who had journeyed to the New World to seek inspiration. The two young artists became friends, and soon began working together. At Melbye’s suggestion, they left the Danish West Indies together in 1853 and travelled to Caracas in Venezuela, where they established a joint studio. Ordrupgaard’s exhibition Pissarro. A meeting on St. Thomas had precisely this ‘missing link’ between Danish Golden Age art and French Impressionism as its theme.
Now, with the acquisition of Portrait of a Boy, a new, crucial perspective has been added to the story.

Traces of the Danish Golden Age

The influence of the Danish Golden Age tradition is clearly evident in Portrait of a Boy, and the picture of the African boy has in many ways the appearance of a genuine Golden Age portrait, with all its typical characteristics: the slightly oblique angle, the direct gaze, the restrained colour palette and the everyday nature of the pose.

Great rarity

Museum director Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark states: “‘Portrait of a Boy’ occupies an important position as an entirely unique facet in the history of Danish Golden Age painting. I know of no other work like it in Danish art history, and in the whole of Pissarro’s quite extensive early work, this portrait is a great rarity. I am therefore delighted that Ordrupgaard, with the support of the George and Emma Jorck Foundation, the New Carlsberg Foundation, and the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces, has been given the opportunity to acquire this unique work.”