“Kunstdommere” by Michael Ancher, 1906

In 1906, when Michael Ancher painted “Kunstdommere,” or “Art Judges,” a portrait of four major Danish artists in the Danish fishing town of Skagen, artists had been visiting and working there for nearly three decades. In fact, the four artists Ancher depicted—Laurits Tuxen, Peder Severin Krøyer, Holger Drachmann, and Jens Willumsen—are shown inside Krøyer’s Skagen studio. Skagen was a pleasant destination in the summer for painting outdoors, and by the late 1870s, an artists’ colony had developed. Its members, people like Krøyer and his companions, were following a few different threads developing at the end of the 19th century. On one hand, they employed the impressionist style coming out of Paris at the time, painting outside and depicting things as they looked in the natural light. But they were also swept up in the Scandinavian Modern Breakthrough, and they were looking to depict a more rugged, real version of life, emphasizing naturalism and implicitly arguing that the mundane, often dangerous and hard lives of working people were worth the attention of high art. Portraiture, after all, had traditionally been the province of the rich. The mid-19th-century development of photography had begun to democratize the form, but attempts to portray the world and its people as they were, warts and all, were fairly new, the province of a creeping modernity.

“Kunstdommere” is the focus of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Portraits of the World: Denmark. The Portraits of the World series attempts to contextualize foreign works on loan with selections of American portraiture from the museum’s collection to shed “light on the many ways in which social and cultural developments are enriched through the flow of people and ideas across national and geographic borders.” For that reason, across the gallery from “Kunstdommere” is a collection of American paintings from New York City, pegged to New York’s own “modern breakthrough.” However, the gallery design and the eclectic selection of American works undermine the project.

Around the same time the Skagen artists’ colony was in full swing, a Danish-born photographer, Jacob Riis, had swept New York City up in muckraking frenzy thanks to his photographs of the city’s poor and their living conditions. Riis’ 1890 book How the Other Half Lives set the stage for an era of social reform, and his aims were reflected in the works of the Ashcan School, a group of rebellious realists who depicted daily life in New York. This thematic needle is threaded by a 1906 etching, “Memory,” by John Sloan, a major Ashcan artist. But “Memory” depicts the artists themselves (Sloan, Robert Henri, and their wives) mostly at rest, not the “gritty realities of urban life” that the wall text alludes to.

Many of the works shown were made in New York’s own de facto artists’ colonies, and the exhibition attempts to argue that early 20th century New York was a petri dish of artistic influence and competition, much like Skagen. A photograph of Willem de Kooning and his wife Elaine calls to mind her art career, which remained in the shadow of her husband’s throughout her life; the wall text says his criticism of her work “fueled her determination to succeed.” The group that coalesced around the gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue and its intracommunity squabbles are featured, including a satirical, abstract cover of the journal 291 that pokes fun at Alfred Stieglitz. Ancher’s own painting of his contemporaries was also a bit of a challenge to them: The artists are looking at Krøyer’s unseen portrait of Drachmann, but Ancher painted Krøyer, Drachmann, and two others to boot. 

But disconnection pervades the American side of the gallery. The comparison the exhibition seeks to make between the American and Danish modern breakthroughs doesn’t always hold up, especially because only one Danish painting is available to speak for its movement and the American selections are so wide-ranging. The American work represented includes a 1987 Red Grooms hybrid painting/collage/sculpture depicting Willem de Kooning and the woman he famously painted in “Woman and Bicycle,” which is an interesting tribute, but a leap in both time and style from the pieces next to it. It’s a lot to bring together, so a glut of text next to every piece tries to tie the knot. Unfortunately, in such a small space, it overwhelms the pieces, especially the smaller ones. 

But the exhibition’s goal of illuminating the context and influence of the Danish piece is an admirable one, and it takes ambitious risks. Instead of pairing it with a group of unsentimental portraits and early photographs from the same era, Portraits of the World attempts to draw a bright line from “Kunstdommere” to the realistic depictions of urban life found in New York and then the abstraction (and return to figurative work) that followed. Artists in a community push each other past artistic frontiers, it argues, but it’s hard to follow the shifting frontier with only about a dozen pieces on view. 

At the National Portrait Gallery to Oct. 12, 2020. 8th and F streets NW. Free. (202) 633-8300. npg.si.edu.

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