by William Eric Indursky
Based on an essay from Kim Lykke Jensen
EMIL CARLSEN: CONSCIOUS PAINTING
During his nearly 70 year career, Danish-American painter and teacher, Emil Carlsen practiced and evangelized conscious painting. In his lifetime, Carlsen witnessed the erosion of time tested painting practices in favor of more Modern self-expression; or the opposite extreme, slavish copying of the observed world with the rise of the camera.
Painting for Carlsen was best thoughtfully translated to the canvas through the filter of the mind. As he eloquently states, “…facts are not facts, but all painting is a translation. Certain problems must be translated. The sun’s reflection on moving water cannot be painted except as a suggestion. The polished surface of a copper pot can be painted, but the painter must choose his key and subordinate either surface or high light.”
For Carlsen, each stroke of a paint brush represented a simultaneous mixture of skills, thoughtful deployment of painting strategy and judgment, and the larger problem of composition and design. Carlsen’s thoughts on the importance of design can be seen in an essay to students selecting still-life items to paint, “The arrangement well spaced, the objects good in color and form, the background simple and neutral, the key chosen, and half of the work is done.”
Today, Carlsen is best known for his Impressionistic still-life painting. But, still-life painting only represented part of his artistic output. He spent equal time painting landscapes and marine scenes and even dabbled in portraiture and the occasional genre subject.
At Carlsen’s height he was as famous as his circle of friends: William Merritt Chase, J. Alden Weir, Childe Hassam, and John Henry Twachtman. His paintings commanded as much as the equivalent of $50,000 per canvas in today’s money.
Perhaps, it was the Dane’s quiet solo demeanor seen in his subtle color use, or his deceptively matter-of-fact compositions that has kept him from receiving the same attention as his colleges. Whatever the reason, my hope is that this book, with its full-color, full-page presentation of a complete range of his life’s work will allow the reader to fully engage and appreciate Emil Carlen’s conscious painting.
Søren Emile Carlsen was born in Copenhagen on October 19, 1848 and baptized a month later in Helligåndskirken, Denmark. He was the son of upper-middle class grocer, Carl Adolph Junius Carlsen [1815-?], and housewife and hobbyist floral painter, Ane Dorothea Raa [1813-1887]. Emil was the eldest of two children both of whom were born when their parents were well into their thirties.
Carlsen’s father was a successful businessman, affording his wife to received artistic training under the Danish master floral painter I.L. Jensen [1800-1856] at a time when few women were allowed to study.
Emil Carlsen had a younger brother, seven years his junior, Carl Carlsen [1855-1917] who attended the Royal Academy of Art [Kunstakademiet] of Copenhagen at the age of twenty-six from 1874-1879. Carl painted realistically and chose landscape, still-life, and genre painting which contained social content as his subjects.
Emil’s primary school years were spent attending private school at the Westenske Institute [also known as Bohrs Latinskole] on Nørregade. It was a well respected school, but eventually closed in 1893. The school graduated a number of prominent students of the era, among them Georg Morris Cohen Brandes [Danish critic and scholar, 1842-1937], Viggo Stuckenberg [Danish poet and literary 1863-1906], Holger Henrik Herholdt Drachmann [Danish poet, dramatist and marine-painter 1846-1908], and of course, Emil himself.
After his primary schooling, Emil was to be apprenticed to a lawyer, but on turning eighteen, he changed his mind and began to study architecture at the Technical Institute of Copenhagen under J. A. Stillmann [1822-1875] and at the Royal Academy of Art [Kunstakademiet] from 1866 to 1869 under Ferdinand Meldahl [1827-1908].
In 1869, Emil exhibited at the Charlottenborgs Forårsudstilling, one of the finest Danish exhibitions of that era, were he displayed an architectural drawing Christian III Monument for the Roskilde Cathedral for which he earned his first prestigious honor, the Neuhausen’s Award.
While at the Royal Academy of Art, Carlsen changed his focus to painting and sought out Danish marine-painter Christian Blache [1838-1920]. However, Carlsen may not have thought much of his original training, as he all but disavowed having studied under any master in Denmark in a letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Curator Emeritus, George Henry Story [1835-1922] dated Feb 15, 1908.
After graduating from the Academy, Emil moved into his own apartment about 300 feet from where he grew up. He spent his time painting along side his cousin, a few years older than himself. His cousin, Viggo Johansen [1851-1935] who would become one of the most famous Danish artists of his time. The two would often paint landscapes and nautical subjects along the coasts of Denmark together.
In 1871, at the age of twenty-three, Carlsen was of legal military age and served in the Danish army. His profession was listed as painter rather than architect. His official military records, note him to be 66.5 inches tall [5 foot 6 1/2 inches or approximately 174 centimeters]. Carlsen was declared fit for service in the Coventry Division and joined the 18th Battalion in Elsinore and then served in the 15th Battalion in Copenhagen. Immediately after he had fulfilled his legal military service, he travelled to the United States.
Only a few paintings of this period survive from these early years before emigrating.
THE AGE OLD DEBATE
Until 2008, it was believed that Emil Carlsen’s birth year was 1852. The artist repeatedly declared this to be the date of his birth. There are even several letters and forms in his own hand that state he was born October 19, 1852.
However, Danish art historian Kim Lykke Jensen in his book, Emil Carlsen: The Hammershoi of Manhattan [out-of-print], has uncovered proof of the artist’s baptismal records stating that he was, in fact, born in 1948, four years earlier than previous thought. It was not uncommon for emigrates to American to alter their birth date, especially when work was easier to get when you were younger. It appears Carlsen had changed his birth date. It should be 1948-1932.
EVERYONE STARTS SOMEWHERE
Carlsen was said to have had a natural drawing ability, but many of his early paintings belie this fact. Like most art students, Emil did not draw or paint very well in the beginning. His drawings were incredibly stiff and his color application was basic and diagramatic. Carlsen’s drawing would get much better later in his life. But human anatomy, not his specialty, would always lag behind and remain static.
It is true, however, Carlsen did have a facility for cartoon drawing. He characters were so well liked that in California, where he would teach, his cartoons lined the school’s student lounge areas. Carlsen produced many cartoons and even entered several exhibitions. When he had a particularily despirate moment in his early career and needed to bulster his finances, Emil would take up work with engravers.
THE EARLY YEARS
Emil Carlsen arrived in the United States in New York City, New York in 1872. He was not listed in any of the Danish emigrant archives, so either he purchased his ticket to America through a foreign travel agent or worked on a ship. This first option is most likely of the two.
Based on his baptismal records from The Holy Spirit Parish Church, Helligåndskirken, Carlsen was twenty-four years old when he first set foot on U.S. soil. It seems that the young Dane took the opportunity of his arrival to lie about his age and say he was nineteen. In all current American literature and all over the internet Carlsen’s birth date is wrongly reported as October 1853 rather than the correct October 19, 1848. Even his long time gallery, Macbeth, had constantly help perpetuate the incorrect date.
In an interview in July 1922 with good friend and art historian Frederic Newlin Price for the magazine International Studio, Emil Carlsen had this to say about his early career, “He [the architect who he came to America to work for] gave me $20 a week. When I left he said ‘I will give you $40 a week'” to keep him. But Carlsen left the office and struck out on his own with a partner to open a school for mechanical drawing. It did not succeed and his partner sold one of Emil’s paintings behind his back and took the cash leaving Emil with rent to pay. “There was a large picture that I painted, and he sold that and took the money.” So Emil went back to the original architect’s office and was offered $10 a week, rather than the $40 a week promised.
After his disappointing work with the architect, Carlsen came in contact with the Danish marine painter Laurits Bernhard Holst (1848-1934), who himself was an emigrant to America only a few years earlier: The Danish painter, Holst, had saw some of the marine paintings that I had made in Denmark and offered me $3 a day to work for him. I painted ships and figures and laid in canvasses for him. He had a lot to do. I had a small sketch that I had painted in Elsinore in Denmark. This little sketch was in his studio and he sold the picture, 10 by 12, to a collector, who came along one day and said: “I like that little sketch of yours.” Holst remarked “that is a little study I made” and the collector said “All right I will take that”. I told him (Holst) that he had no right to sell my sketches, but he only remarked, “That is all right” and gave me $5 for it. He went back to Denmark and became a well-known painter afterward. Before he went back to Europe he said, “you keep the studio, Carlsen”, and that was the way I started” explained Emil Carlsen in the interview.
Despite Holst’s lack of morals, he seems to have been a positive influence on the young Danish painter and helped Carlsen develop his painting further while in the United States. Carlsen’s paintings from this period followed traditional Danish maritime painting; but at a higher quality than his previous attempts (Figure xx).
After Holst’s departure, Emil found it hard to make ends meet. He was just about to give up on painting when he met the sculptor, Leonard Wells Volk (1828-1895). Volk was looking for someone to teach drawing at the Chicago Art Institute and hired Carlsen for the job. He was paid a good salary and was even given the opportunity to paint at a studio next to where he would be teaching. But Emil did not keep the job very long before meeting the painter Lawrence Carmichael Earle (1845-1921), who recently had returned from Europe. He advised Emil to go back to Europe to study. He followed Earle’s advice and in 1875 went to Denmark, and on to Paris, where he studied until he had no more money left. “It lasted 6 months, and then I went back to New York.” Carlsen said.
Once back in Denmark, he painted a few images including some studies of Christ and Fisherman (fig.XX). He then headed to Paris. Once in France, he went to different private art schools and frequented the city’s many museums. From this stay in Paris, several landscape (Figure XX?) and still-life were produced.
He returned to the United States in early 1876 without a penny in his pocket, but as a much more skilled painter. “When I came back, I had a studio near Murphy. Murphy had worked in Chicago and I had known him there, when he had taken care of Eakins’ studio cleaning and washing his brushes.”
In New York, Carlsen lived on Twenty-Third Street in a boarding house. One day he took twelve drawings to a dealer, downtown, where he sold all of them and was asked to produce more. He was paid $2 each and not a cent more.
Carlsen was so broke at this time, that he asked his parents in Denmark for money. They sent it to him and in 1876 and he used this money to go to Boston. It was in Boston that Emil exhibited paintings for the first time. It was in 1877, where he had two paintings being shown through an exhibition at the Boston Art Club. It was two marine paintings, one titled “Out on the Kattegat” and the other “The Seaweed Cart”.
But it was a tough period for the young Dane. It was difficult to put food on the table but, he continued to paint. In 1927, in a letter to a former pupil, he recounted a story of an earlier painting of his that he saw from that period at a gallery for $700 dollars. Carlsen wrote that the painting was when he was more than happy if he could only get money enough for something to eat. He painted pictures for $5 and told people that they could pick them up in the afternoon for the orders placed that morning.
In 1879 Emil tried to hold a sale of his paintings at an auction house in Boston to raise much needed funds. Thirty paintings were for sale, but only 17 were sold and at a low price. It was not nearly enough to cover the costs of the sale and Carlsen wound up in debt to the auction house. Due to this debt he was, therefore, forced to give up his atelier. To help his situation he temporary gave up painting and focused instead on a job as an assistant to an engraver. He did not like the work much. In the beginning, he was given a token wage, but in time, it was more lucrative. After a few years, he had paid all his debts and saved some money up.
He put his engraver job on hold and opened a small atelier, where he began to teach and resumed to paint. With his painting resumed, he again presented a painting at the exhibition at the Boston Art Club in 1881. This time with the picture “The Seaweed Gathers”. The following year, in 1882, he exhibited the picture “May Morning”. In 1883, Carlsen exhibited for the first time a still-life painting. This same year Emil showed the painting “Peonies” at the annual Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts fine in Philadelphia. It was also at this point that Emil Carlsen stopped using his first name Søren.
Throughout the following next years in Boston, he saw a growing success among both critics and art buyers. Two of his still-life was mentioned as some of the best works at the Boston Art Club exhibition in 1884. Several well-known art collectors of the time started to take notice of the talents of Emil Carlsen. Among the collectors was Thomas B. Clarke from New York. He bought a painting from one of the exhibitions, which depicted a dead rooster, a copper dish and some kitchen items.
Art dealer, T. J. Blakeslee of New York, came one day to visit Emil at his atelier. He struck a deal with Carlsen to send him to Paris to paint flower paintings. Carlsen was to send one painting each month back to Blakeslee. Blakeslee would, in turn, resell the flower painting as a Parisian artist painting. There was a big demand for paintings from abroad and especially from France at this time. Carlsen was fascinated by Paris from his residence some years earlier, and was not difficult to persuade him. He welcomed the chance to have a reasonably steady income. Carl Carlsen, Emil’s younger brother, had recently been in Paris for a few years, and had written to Emil to share the exciting details of that place. Emil Carlsen once again travelled abroad and went back to Paris to take Blakeslee up on his offer.
Carlsen’s stay in Paris lasted for about 2 years. During this period, he came into contact with many American painters who were living in Paris, among them Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925), Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928), and Samuel Isham (1855-1914). But Emil did not hang out with them as much as he spent time with the group of Danish painters who also resided in Paris in the mid-1880s, like Julius Paulsen (1860-1940) and his old friend, Viggo Johansen (1851-1935).
In Paris, Emil Carlsen mainly painted Flower paintings, especially yellow roses which according to Blakeslee were the most sellable. While in Paris, Carlsen began to be in contact with other art dealers in the United States who also wanted Carlsen to provide them with flower paintings. But, quickly the high demand for production of the flower paintings felt like an albatross around Emil’s neck. The paintings from that period were done quite well, but not representative of his other production (Figure xx).
The paintings he made on his own initiative show on the other hand Carlsen’s dazzling talent but, also a strong influence of the latest trends in European painting. This was particularly reflected in some landscapes from this period. Among this type of painting was “Moncour” (Figure Xx). His palette started to become brighter and brighter, in contrast to the past, where the dark colors had dominated.
It was also in Paris that Carlsen developed his interest of producing still-life with fine Chinese porcelain, which later was to become his trademark style. In Paris he also spent time copying the old masters that he admired from the city’s museums. Most notably he copied Jean Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779), Titian (c.1485-1576) and Jan II Vermeer van Haarlem (better known as Vermeer 1628-1691). He also studied Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Claude Monet (1840-1926) and tried to take their spontaneity and freshness of handling.
But Paris was no bed of roses. On a purely economic level Emil could survive but not much else. “Living in Paris, close to the Louvre, where he could admire and study Chardin, Carlsen tells many stories of still-life painting: How at times they would eat the fruit, or mortgage themselves deeply to buy the flowers, they needed,” wrote Newlin Price in his article from 1922.
In 1885, Emil Carlsen had the great honor to be shown in The Paris Salon with a large picture entitled “Woman Preparing Poultry.” It was immediately sold to an American collector who got it at a good price. It gave Emil optimism and hope that he might be able to paint more freely and leave the demanding flower paintings behind him. But the dealer Blakeslee continued to push for paintings with yellow roses. Finally, tired of painting flowers, Carlsen broke his contract with Blakeslee and moved back to New York.
Back in the United States – 1887-1900
The time in Paris had been extremely important to Carlsen’s development as a painter. It would be one of the keys in developing his personal expression and style. Paris recharged the painter with a passion for painting, which lead him to paint exceptional still-life and nature paintings.
On returning to New York, Emil once again took a studio. During this New York phase of his career, he both painted and sold many paintings. Finally, it seemed, Carlsen would make a name for himself in America. Within a year’s time his popularity brought him more offers to travel and teach. An offer to become the head of the San Francisco Art Association School [now known as San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)] was extended to him. Carlsen accepted and moved to San Francisco, California.
In San Francisco, Emil was a popular teacher among students and became more socially connected. He became a member of several social clubs, including the famous “Bohemian Club.” But like many jobs Carlsen had in the past, he quickly became unsatisfied with the working environment. The school had many internal political problems and he also lamented the lack of time to paint for himself. After just two years in the post, Emil left the San Francisco Art Association School and instead taught at the The Art Students League of San Francisco.
Changing jobs gave Emil more free time to paint but left him struggling for money. He extended his social network further by becoming a member of “Society of American Artists”. During this period, Emil started to experiment with portraits, most probably in an effort to supplement his income. To raise funds, Carlsen even accepted an interior design and decorating job for the wealthy banker William H. Crocker (1861-1937), who was owner of the most important bank in San Francisco and whose wife helped bring French impressionism to California. In addition to paintings done for the Crocker house Carlsen designed decorations for the ceilings, walls, and even chose the furniture.
Carlsen complained that there was no market for his paintings in California but had several exhibitions in the galleries that did exist. Unfortunately, he was correct and sold few paintings in California. Feeling that his market existed in New York and that he could make a better living there he headed back to the Big Apple. Emil said in a newspaper interview, “I go where people buy paintings and where there is an opportunity to exhibit them… I think it is unpleasant to be a pioneer in a place where rich people buy their pictures in Europe or over on the East Coast, and the people who would like to buy local images, could not really afford them.” At the end of 1891, Carlsen went back to New York.
In the following decades, Emil split his time between painting and teaching. He had both private students and taught at the National Academy of Design, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and at Columbia University. During this period he was to move around and was recorded to have several different addresses.
In 1892, Carlsen participated in an exhibition of the Society of American Artists. It was a highly attended exhibition with the New York Times saying this about Emil’s work “…it shows that Emil Carlsen has not forgotten his skills after he moved to San Francisco, out of the area, along the Atlantic coast, once again.
Carlsen was to again revisit flower painting. He also produced still-life and a number of marine paintings in the 90s.
This time in his life became a time to experiment. He produced a series of flower paintings executed in bright almost primary colors with Impressionistic brushwork. Carlsen tried other media and worked in pastel and watercolor (page XX), but came to the conclusion that oil paint was the media which fitted in best with his temperament and artistic goals.
In the mid-1890s, Carlsen painted a few still-life which greatly differed from his previous and usual production, like “Punch bowl” and “Red Shoes (Figure xx and xx)”. Here he might have discovered some of the essence of what was to become his “quiet magic”. Carlsen expression of solitude and a meditative inner calm, which was to become one of his most important characteristics of most of his production, was starting to develop at this time. It is also in this period where Emil would return to a simple, more primal, expression in his work.
In the 90s, Emil Carlsen had become well known as a still-life painter. So it was to the New York Time’s great surprise to see that Emil presented a portrait of a young woman (Figure xx) at a show of the Society of American Artists in 1896. The woman was an unknown model who fell in love with Carlsen and was later to become Emil’s wife. Luella May Ruby was substantially younger than the now fifty year old Carlsen when they met and were married.
In the late 1800s Carlsen became fascinated by painting white objects, such as ceramics, porcelain, garlic and clothes. He felt that it created a calm balance and a refined expression in the pictures, a position he had in common with Vilhelm Hammershøi.
Privacy and Success 1900-1932
Emil Carlsen was married to Luella May Ruby in 1896 and his son Dines was born in 1901.
In 1905, Carlsen built a vacation house in Falls Village in Connecticut, equipped with a large studio. The place came to provide the framework for a large part of their family life. It was there that Emil was relaxed and could paint. The family stayed at the vacation home as often as they could but, when not there they resided at a large apartment on 43 East 59th Street in Manhattan. This apartment also held a great calm, despite the vibrant cities on the other side of the windows: “In Emil Carlsen’s quiet studio in New York City is an atmosphere of the old days. This impression is reinforced by interesting study and portraits of his friend, Alden Weir, a large unfinished picture of Chase and other memories from the big 90’era “, described the art historian John Steele in 1927 in the magazine International Studio.
Here, after the turn of the century, Emil Carlsen was finally fully trained, technical and artistic. It coincides with his public recognition and a growing sense of calm in his private life creating an even greater harmony in his paintings. He took a stand on using a subdued and atmospheric color palette which he was to favor for the rest of his career. He did, however, continue to experiment, but now only in as it related to his own artistic principles, and in particular the preparation of the ground and the combination and layering of different types of paint.
During this period in America, still-life painting became less fashionable; this might explain why Carlsen moved away from painting them and once again returned to focusing on landscape and marine painting. Carlsen’s still-life paintings, however, still earned him much praise whenever they were exhibited. And it was not that he had difficulty in selling them. Most of the exhibited pictures sold in advance. Nevertheless, wrote the New York Herald in 1904: “For years, Carlsen been known as the still-life painter, and although his work was excellent, it has brought him little economic livelihood. More recently, he has directed his attention to landscape painting using the benefit of his good sense of color .”
Carlsen painted landscape from his residence in Falls Village, but also worked from the coast of Ogunquit, Maine, Connecticut, Niagara Falls and Denmark. His paintings, after the turn of the century, had a particularly lyrical, almost iconic nature. Critics and art collectors liked what they saw. Carlsen now exhibited each year at the National Academy of Design and at other public exhibitions.
In 1904 Emil Carlsen received the highest American honor in the arts. He was elected as an Associate of the National Academy. This same year he won the prestigious Shaw Prize bestowed by the Society of American Artists. Emil was also awarded the Inness prize at the Salmagundi Club. And finally, he received the gold medal at the World’s Fair in St. Louis for “Blackfish and Clams” (Figure XX), which in 1905 was donated to the Metropolitan Museum, where it can still be seen. Orders from the country’s top art collectors poured in.
From this year to his death, Emil Carlsen won just about every major award and was part of every important exhibition in the United States.
Both at the World’s Fair in San Francisco in 1915 and in Philadelphia in 1926, Carlsen won the gold medal. Art dealers around the country were now interested in representing Carlsen. A number of major exhibitions where held of Emil Carlsen’s work. For example, Bauer-Folsom on 5th Avenue held a large exhibition of his landscape paintings of Denmark. The exhibition was a great success, and the Carlsen’s images were praised for the clouds: “It is a refreshing interesting exhibition of the works, expressing a rare force in their honest and simple terms … His work reflects a foresight and clean mind. In short, Carlsen a man who paint what appeals to him, in a way that behager him, and it behager audience ” , said among other things, to read in one of New York newspapers.
In 1909, Carlsen also exhibited internationally. He was shown in the Biennale in Venice, a city he had visited years before on one of his major European trips.
Although there was always plenty to do in his painting studio; he still time to teach, including a course on still-life at the National Academy, as he wrote to the magazine “Palette and Bench.” Among other things, the two major articles on still-life painting and the use of temperature [which is reprinted at the back of this book].
George A. Hearn, one of the country’s largest private art collectors, in May 1910, donated several major artworks to the Metropolitan Museum of American Art. Of these, Emil Carlsen’s “Open Sea” (Figure xx) was included. The painting was featured as one of the collection highlights by the city’s critics. The New York Times wrote, among other things: “The amazing clouds, which elevates the majestic is in color… The painting is of great artistic value. Carlsen provides unique in to fill the picture with the air without losing the beauty of his surfaces, which has the precious quality as the old porcelain” Hearn also lent the museum a number of other Carlsen’s paintings from his private collection.
Carlsen family life was harmonious. He had a large archive of family photographs showing the happy moments of the marriage and their son. Even from a young age the photos showed the young Dines Carlsen had an interest and talent for painting and drawing. He and Emil had a very close relationship and Dines joined Emil in the studio.
At an exhibition at The National Academy in 1916, Emil won the grand prize, the Gold Medal, for a marine painting, which according to the news papers, moved many of the visitors with its peaceful and transcendental expression. At the same exhibition, the young, 15-year-old Dines also showed for the first time a still-life. Dines received both one of the smaller prizes and had sold the painting that impressed all with his talent.
Dines never developed his own artistic expression. His paintings always remained a pale imitation of his father’s still-life, but he remained a working artist until his death.
Emil Carlsen was pleasant and easy to get along with. He had many friends in the American art world. These included fellow painters Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), Kenyon C. Cox (1856-1919), Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). He cultivated the social relations in various clubs and art organizations.
During the 1900s Emil Carlsen was becoming even more recognized and respected. He was considered the true gentleman of American art, and among friends, he was only called “Old Carlsen.” The demand for his paintings continued to be strong. The exclusive Macbeth Gallery could sell all his paintings for soaring prices. Reviews in the New York media were very favorable to him. Each time he exhibited a painting or an an exhibition it was publically celebrated. For example in 1919, Carlsen won another prestigious prize, The Carnegie Prize for the painting “Wave at Skagen”: “It is a remarkable piece of art. No painter understands better the processing of his material. The color is wonderful, as the tone of ancient Chinese porcelain, and the surface is beautiful and full of glossy oil paint. The painting will win the prize convincing, ” [ get exact quote from kim] wrote New York Times.
His paintings also achieved high prices and auction. In 1912, an auction house sold one of his still-life with a boiler for $620 USD – a painting by Edouard Manet (1832-1883) could be purchased at a lower price.
At the death of Hearn, one of Emil Carlsen’s largest collectors, in 1920, at his estate sale by a major auction house, an Emil Carlsen marine painting sold for a record $2,000 USD, a staggering amount for that time. But this was nothing compared to the extremely high prices for his paintings at retail in the galleries. Most paintings sold for around $3,000 USD and higher. One Carlsen painting was even offered for $15,000 USD but did not sell.
His wealth would provide him the opportunity to paint only what he wanted and he kept ones that had meaning to him. Carlsen wrote in a letter to The Macbeth Gallery in advance of a major exhibition in 1922: “As for the image of Tibet (Figure XX), I will keep it. Put a very high price on it, and even at the price I am not interested in selling it. It is a very special picture with a finish that I could never achieve again. ”
In 1922, there was a special Danish auction held at the exclusive Plaza Hotel for the art trade. There were sixty-three paintings that went under the hammer. The New York Times was in attendance and reported that the auction was run by Winkel and Magnussen of Copenhagen and it was to be the American leg of an auction that was to end in Montague, France. The auction carried almost exclusively top French painters: Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Dupree, and Pissarro. There was a single painting of Emil Carlsen’s, a still-life with apples that was sold at a price equal in level with the French masters. It is unknown what collection this Carlsen painting ended up in or why Winkel & Magnussen had added the painting into this auction on the United States leg of the tour. [kim is there an image of this? Where did you come across this? The New York Times? Can you send the article]
Carlsen, in 1922, wrote about his close friend of many years, Julian Alden Weir. Weir has just died and Emil had reflected on the man in an essay called “Julian Alden Weir, an Appreciation of his Life and Works”.
Despite all of Emil Carlsen’s success in the United States, he was still virtually unknown in contemporary Denmark. In 1921, he was even mentioned in a rebuild talk organized by the American ambassador as an example of one of the Danes who had made a difference in American society. The art historian and painter, Karl Madsen who wrote a book on Skagen Painting from 1929 mentions Carlsen with only a few lines.
Although Carlsen in the 1930s was well up in his years, he was in no way weak or frail. He continued to paint, producing prodigious amounts and instructed young artists who sought his help. Carlsen lived his life fully to the last.
Emil Carlsen died on January 2, 1932 at the age of 83 years of a heart attack and left behind, according to the New York Times, a large inheritance to his survivors.
Emil Carlsen was twenty-four years old when he moved to the United States. But, even though away from his homeland, he continually appreciated his own heritage and visited Denmark several times throughout his life.
There are many articles and letters left behind that give us a good sense of Emil Carlsen the person and his role in the US art milieu. All of the material suggests that Carlsen remained very Danish in his manner. Even after achieving great wealth, he continued to be very modest and humble, a typically Danish quality.
Erwin S. Barrie, head of the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York, who sold many Carlsen paintings in the 20s; in a retrospective exhibition of Carlsen’s work held in 1968, he said this in the foreword:
“He was a rather small thin man with red whiskers and always wore a grey tweed suit which probably never got pressed… I remember one time when I was trying to sell one of his still-life paintings. I introduced him to the client, but he was of very little help. He told the client that Childe Hassam was the best American painter, and I couldn´t get him to say anything favorable about his own work.”
The same modesty can be seen throughout all of Carlsen’s life. He never saw himself as an intellectual or a gift to art. Art collector August Bontoux described in a letter a meeting between him and the then 78-year-old Emil Carlsen:
“I was surprised to see a spry gentleman, who appeared to be about 65 years old, well dressed, but very, very plain, a big blondish beard and wearing glasses, everything pointing to a sturdy personality that has stayed true to itself. You know Emil Carlsen is a big name and I had expected to see quite the contrary. I had expected to see a high-brow, a man well groomed, paying much attention to his exterior, unapproachable, but fame and prosperity have not contaminated this man’s soul… There is nothing affected about him – simple and true – no fringes. A man who has gone through as much as he has and remains uncontaminated, certainly again proves that greatness and simplicity come from the same root.”
Emil Carlsen, typically Danish in his love of landscape and nature ironically never painted a winter scene. He in fact, hated the cold. Once, his friend and fellow painter, Julian Alden Weir offered the use of his mobile studio which was built on top of a sled, but Emil flatly refused. This is why he always visited Denmark in the summer.
Carlsen may have not liked the snow, but he was very fond of the sea:
“Carlsen’s marine painting is done with great love. Carlsen love the sea. An American painter had reported that once he met Carlsen at the Ogunquit. Along the coast in the moonlight, did they loved and looked beyond the deep, dark ocean with its glittering illuminating way to the horizon. They stood as enchanted until Carlsen threw his hat down to the beach and cried, “My God, where is it wonderful!” There are many of Carlsen’s night paintings that gives the feeling of an out of body experience and the essence of his greatness and love,” wrote art historian Newlin Price in 1922
You can find the Quote in the book from 1975!!
In spite of that Carlsen being a tolerant man, he had very little love for Modern Art:
“I’m old-fashioned. I cannot understand the people they might as well throw a tomato on a canvas. In any case, a painting not good when it is bad – it can not only be experimental, it must also contain a quality other than manufactured curiosity, “he said in a private conversation with Newlin Price shortly before his death.
You can find the Quote in the book from 1975!!
In a letter to one of his old pupils in 1928, Carlsen wrote that painters such as Matisse and Derain really had some talent but “were a bit of charlatans” in their art.
But Emil kept his opinions and criticisms to himself and close friends and relatives.
Carlsen’s Danish heritage, for the first time, was discussed in his obituary in the New York Times by art critic, Elisabeth Luther Carry. Carry was the first to compare Carlsen’s art with the Danish tradition. Until then he had only been held up to his colleagues Childe Hassam and Julian Alden Weir, but she did not subscribe to that point of view and described him instead as Danish in all his work.
“Looking back on his paintings, you can think of the Danish position in relation to its ceramists, producing works with a meticulousness and patience and a discerning taste, predatory anything but the most exalted forms, the most perfect burning as a base for the design.” (The New York Times, 1932)
And she continued with the Danish angle:
“They, as the Danish paintings exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago will find it easy to connect Carlsen’s art along with their on the basis of its honesty and simplicity… His work reflects the Danes’ special quality, their balance and balance between the cool, and the emotional, “she writes in the obituary. (The New York Times, 1932)
She then compared Carlsen with Vilhelm Hammershøi, but also reported on the differences between the two artists:
“Vilhelm Hammershøi, the melancholy genius, oppressed by the gray all the anger from his youth and the problems of his fragile mind, while Emil Carlsen expresses the purity of his mind and joy in life. Yet mystikken from the north present in both artist… whether they know it or not, now we have lost Carlsen, our society has lost the revelation of a nation’s distinctive”, she ended obituary. (The New York Times, 1932)
Carlsen said that he was indifferent whether people liked him or not. He was a perfectionist and very critical of his own production.
Two images from 1931 show that perfectionism. When he was nearly finished with a painting which he had worked on for a long time, he was not entirely satisfied with the image balance; so he cut-off the work and started over again. Both images are depicted in this book. It is not easy to see the big difference, but the artist could (fig.xx and xx).
He was not only a perfectionist, but also a bit vain when it came to his art. Late in his career, after he had come into money, he bought several of his paintings back to destroy them, because he did not like them. For example in 1927, when he came across three early pictures, “He gave $1,100 dollars for them, and went home and burned them,” said one of his friends in a letter.
Late in his career, Carlsen also bought back paintings for sentimental reasons; among them, a portrait of Dines as a child.
The vast majority of the Carlsen’s paintings from Denmark come from Skagen. It was a natural place for the artist to stay. There were plenty of sun, sea and the bright landscape. He also knew several of the artists at the local art colony at the top of Jutland; Carl Locher, Viggo Johansen, Julius Paulsen and Christian Blache, among others.
In one of the Carlsen’s stay in Skagen, Michael Ancher painted a portrait of him in the dining room at Brøndums Hotel. The hotel’s dining room interior and paintings were reinstalled at the Skagen Museum in 1946, where the room today still can be experienced. Unfortunately, there was not room for all the paintings after the transfer, and some paintings stayed at the hotel. The portrait of Emil Carlsen unable to make the trip was destroyed, together with a large part of the hotel, by two fires in the 1950s.
At Skagen, Emil Carlsen painted some of his very best marine images of the sea, dunes and beach. At home in the United States he never was able to achieve the same quality of painting of the sea, due to the lack of the special sun light at the Danish location. One of the locations that most captured his attention was the meeting of the two seas at Grenen (Figure xx). A fascination he shared with fellow painter Holger Drachmann, who painted this subject again and again.
Several of Carlsen’s paintings from Skagen recall a similar style to the painter Julius Paulsen; in particular, their shared picturesque approach to representing nature. They were both enjoyed painting the sea at night and were both adept at capturing the soul of the late hour.
A few times Carlsen painted other Danish locations. There is a known example of an outstanding painting of Vejle Habour from 1912 (fig.xx).
Carlsen usually travelled to Denmark in late spring and stayed through the summer. When the weather turned cooler he would usually travel further south to locations like Rome or Venice, or would travel back to New York to transform his oil sketches from Denmark into finished paintings. During one trip, he visited the former Danish colony, the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean on the way home to the United States. Carlsen has also been known to have visited Norway, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and London, England several times. Even once to Istanbul.
On more than one occasion, Carlsen brought Dines and Luella May with him traveling. At least two times they all stayed in Skagen. In the guestbook of Brøndums Hotel from 1909 one can read:
“June 6 arrived artist Emil Carlsen, wife and son, New York, arriving from Holland.”
The family stayed this time for several months before they departed to Hamburg, Germany. The guestbook also documents that the family returned in 1910, where they arrived from Vejle and returned later to New York.
A few times Emil Carlsen’s stays were mentioned in the local papers. Vendsyssel Tidende writes on October 25, 1908:
“The painter Emil Carlsen, New York, who still stays at Brøndum´s has lately worked hard making sketches from the sand hills and the sea”.
It was not only at Brøndums Hotel that Carlsen stayed when he was in Denmark, he also stayed at the other less fashionable hotels in Skagen.
It has unfortunately been impossible to make a fuller description of Carlsen’s many stays in Denmark. There is very little material from this part of his life. It is known, however, that he was in Denmark during the following years: 1877, 1890, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1917, 1918, 1919 and 1925, probably several other times.
The teacher Emil Carlsen
“Beauty is ever present like the light of sun – even in the most humble object, only it takes an artist’s vision to detect it, and an artist’s skill to reproduce it.” -Emil Carlsen
The training of young artists was near to Emil Carlsen’s heart. Throughout his life he taught many students. He found it difficult to say no to the hopeful young people who sought guidance from him. He held a teaching post at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts until 1918. After that ended he continued to teach as lecturer at various arts academies and universities, as well as privately working students at his own studio.
As late as 1930 he was known to have helped students. Helen Keep sent letters to Emil asking for his advice and criticism of several of her water color paintings. The correspondence, preserved at the American Art Archives shows Carlsen to be a sympathetic teacher who was not entirely comfortable offering criticism. However he did offer up advice and suggestions. In an excerpt from one of the letters:
“The very best interior paintings of Vermeer, Chardin and Hammershøi, typically have a character or two as the instrument. A still life should not have life in itself, nor is it necessary to have life in a landscape, but an interior think I need life in one form or another, a cat or dog can do it. It’s just my opinion; it may be that I am wrong. Your images have the quality, your color is deep and mature – but oil painting on a on a perfectly prepared canvas will bring your work. Your sincerely, Emil Carlsen ”
The same year, Carlsen wrote to his former pupil, Claude Buck, who asked for his guidance on how to produce a proper ground for his paintings. Carlsen wrote back:
“I nevertheless enclose the very best formula for canvas preparation. It is the oldest and best Italian method and absolutely permanent and sound. When you use it exactly as per formula it is absorbent, when too little zinc white it may crack, but it is well worth taking pains… It holds the color splendidly, and if you have a great deal of drawing to be done on your picture, you can lay it in in tempera or water color. If you cannot get the casein and a high grade of zinc in Chicago, kindly send me a word, and i will send you a box full”.
The above shows a very sympathetic and helpful teacher, one willing to share with others what he himself took a lifetime to acquire.
Several letters from former students and colleagues paid tribute to him for his great pedagogical sense and talent for educating.
John Andrew Myers, in charge of teaching at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, wrote in a letter from 1915 to Carlsen: “You are an inspiration to the students… you are a true teacher by nature.”
John Steele’s written portrait of Carlsen from 1927 which appeared in International Studio describes his teachings:
“Virtually all his life, Emil Carlsen been a teacher of art. Yet at the end of this long career he stresses that the whole craft, the whole technique, all the skill which students learn in art school, is worthless unless it has its own innate vision of things, its own vision and something to say with his art… 74-year-old is Emil Carlsen remained far more tolerant of his views on all the artists than many of our young men. Perhaps because he has sought his peace and joy in his work, because he never skingert have demanded recognition, he has been a very special place in the American arts. ”