Having won the Great Grand Prize for painting awarded by the Royal Danish Academy in 1809, Eckersberg set out from Copenhagen the following year with Rome as his ultimate destination. He spent three years in Paris along the way, including one year as a pupil of the foremost European painter of the era, Jacques-Louis David. Eckersberg was arguably David's most important foreign follower. Absorbing both his austere Neoclassical idealism and his admonition never to stray from nature, the master's teachings prepared him for Rome as well as his subsequent career as a mentor to younger painters. Eckersberg was to become the most influential figure of the Golden Age of Danish painting. His impact was felt throughout Scandinavia and northern Germany until about 1850.Eckersberg in Rome:
In Rome between 1813 and 1816, Eckersberg produced a series of urban prospects remarkable for their scrupulously simple compositions and saturated hues. These studies were painted in repeated sittings before the motif in order to faithfully reproduce the effects of the Mediterranean sun on architectural ensembles. In June 1814, Eckersberg noted in his diary the purchase of a portable painter’s box and the repair of his camp stool, for use in painting out of doors. On July 23, 1814, the artist wrote to the German-Danish engraver Johan Frederik Clemens (1749–1831): “I intend to make a collection of the most beautiful of the many picturesque parts of Rome and the surrounding area. I have been working on them throughout the spring. I have already almost half a score of small sketches finished, all of which were completed on the spot after nature. I limit myself especially to architectural things.”The Painting:
This frieze-like image depicts the so-called Temple of Romulus, erected after 309, which serves as the vestibule to the larger structure behind it, an early sixth-century church dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian. They are situated between the Temple of Faustina and the Basilica of Constantine, along the Via Sacra in the Roman Forum. Three isolated and self-absorbed figures establish a sense of scale; trees at either side contribute near-symmetry through a touch of nature. The painting is simultaneously a finished picture and, to use the artist’s own term, a “sketch.” It epitomizes the sober yet warm sensibility that set the tone for Scandinavian painting for the next half century. A Section of the Via Sacra
bears other hallmarks of Eckersberg’s Roman views: modest dimensions, a deceptively simple composition, and uncompromising faithfulness to naturalistic effect.
The painting was preceded by a drawing (The Met 2012.378
), which is inscribed "paa Campo vaccino 1814" and initialed and dated "E. 1815." “Campo Vaccino,” or cow pasture, was the commonly used name for the Roman Forum well into the nineteenth century, an indication of the pastoral state into which the civic center of ancient Rome had lapsed, and a continuing reminder of the shifting lenses through which previous generations romanticized the past. The drawing, executed largely in graphite gone over with brush and brown ink, served as a study for the painting. (For a discussion of the drawing’s role in the process of executing the painting, see Technical Notes below.)
Eckersberg did, in fact, consider his painted Roman views to be finished works of art. He later installed them in the “yellow room” of his apartment, adjacent to his studio in Charlottenborg Palace, seat of the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. There, they proved a revelation to younger contemporaries such as Christen Købke, Constantin Hansen (see The Met 2007.164.4
), Fritz Petzholdt (see The Met 2009.400.95
), and the Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl (see The Met 2019.167.1
This was one of the few examples Eckersberg exhibited publicly during his lifetime. In 1828 he showed a View of the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, Formerly the Temple of Antoninus and Faustus, Rome
(see fig. 1 above) at the Kunstforeningen, the leading arts society in Copenhagen, as En Del af Via Sacra
(Section of the Via Sacra), together with the present work as En anden Del af Via Sacra
(Another Section of the Via Sacra).
The essentially topographical subjects of these pictures follow a long tradition of vedute
(views) painted by artists active in Rome such as Gaspar Adriaensz. van Wittel, also called Vanvitelli (Dutch 1652/53–1736), who catered to the Grand Tourist trade. However, as depictions of well-known sites that eschew the typical attributes of the Picturesque tradition in favor of a seemingly casual, almost offhand approach to composition, Eckersberg’s paintings suggest an acquaintance with works by established artists working in this vein in Rome at the same moment, above all David’s former pupil François-Marius Granet (1775–1849). Granet’s studio in the monastery of Santa Trinità dei Monti was a stone’s throw away from Eckersberg’s own, at 48, via Sistina, an address he shared with the leading sculptor then in Rome, his friend and compatriot Bertel Thorvaldsen (1790–1844).
Asher Miller 2020
 For quotations in this entry and other information, see Philip Conisbee, Kasper Monrad, and Lene Bøh Rønberg, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1783–1853
, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003, esp. pp. 14, 24 n. 1, pp. 84, 100.