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0119 Patrick Kragelund, Nathanson, Eckersberg's Moses, and Danish Haskalah ('Reformed Judaism')

RIHA Journal 0119 | 7 May 2015

Nathanson, Eckersberg's Moses, and Danish Haskalah ('Reformed Judaism')*

Patrick Kragelund

Peer review and editing managed by:

Elisabeth Kofod-Hansen, Danmarks Kunstbibliotek / The Danish National Art Library, Copenhagen


Karina Lykke Grand, Kasper Monrad


Among the patrons of the young C. W. Eckersberg (1783-1853), the Jewish merchant M. L. Nathanson (1780-1868) was the most important. A key figure in the process eventually leading to the Danish Jews obtaining complete legal and civic parity (1849), Nathanson can be shown to have pioneered art patronage as a platform for social and cultural integration. His commissions for patriotic "Galleries" (imitating Boydell's British Shakespeare Gallery) and for family portraits illustrate his efforts to give art a new role in this process. Hitherto ignored, so does his commission for a monumental Moses Crossing the Red Sea – a work that in its iconography, as developed by Eckersberg between 1812 and 1817, represents a remarkable fusion of Jewish, Greco-Roman and Christian elements that combined with overt loans from Raphael and Giovanni Donducci gives it a unique place in Eckersberg's oeuvre.



  1. The bicentenary of Jewish emancipation in Denmark (1814-2014)1 calls for a re-examination of the connection between the foremost of early Dano-Jewish reformers and the painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783-1853).2

  2. Mendel Levin Nathanson (1780-1868) hailed from the Jewish community in the then Danish free-trade emporium in Altona just outside the German merchant metropolis of Hamburg, from whence, as a poor, semi-literate boy, he came to Copenhagen to work in the firm of his uncle.3 Gifted, self-taught and energetic, Nathanson soon found success and wealth in the burgeoning Baltic trade. Determined to bypass Hamburg-Altona as the source of his imports, the 18-year-old merchant set out in 1798 across the North Sea and succeeded in establishing direct business contacts in Leeds and Manchester, where Nathanson found a generous patron in the great cotton mill owner, Sir Robert Peel the Elder (1750-1830), the father of the future prime minister.4 Himself a social reformer, Peel clearly took a liking to Nathanson, for whom he opened London doors so that Nathanson, on repeated visits, could familiarise himself with the parliamentary system, the thriving industry and the advances in statistics and economic theory, factors that were to exert a lifelong influence.5

  3. Back in Copenhagen Nathanson soon found his life's vocation as a philanthropist and social reformer, supporting education and artists. This approach was of course ultimately a response to the calls for reform of Jewish life from the great Berlin philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).6 The so-called Reformjudentum, in Hebrew Haskalah, of which Mendelssohn and his ally Paul Friedländer were the most prominent proponents, had as its ultimate goal civic integration through school, language, Bildung and a reformed religious practice. In the vibrant and lively Jewish congregation in Hamburg-Altona7 these novel ideas had soon taken root and in Copenhagen Nathanson joined groups eager to turn such ideals into action. Their projects profited from royal support. A school, first for poor Jewish boys (1805), later joined by one for girls, was the group's chief instrument of integration. King Frederik VI allowed the latter to be named the Caroline School (as it is still called) after his eldest daughter. Learning the national language would bring Jewry out of uneducated, Yiddish speaking marginalization.8 Legislation had already granted the Danish Jews access to guilds, Academy and University, now the dissemination of literacy and of a shared historical and cultural perspective would allow the congregation's members to become Danes, be they of Jewish faith or, as was not unusual among Mendelssohn's followers, of the Christian faith to which almost all Nathanson's children eventually converted. Nathanson himself remained loyal to the old faith, but, as will become apparent, it is worth noting that he was an effective, but by no means unchallenged spokesman for the introduction of a reformed ritual in the Copenhagen Synagogue, with hymns and sermons in Danish.

  4. At heart probably a convinced constitutionalist (Peel would have hammered it in), Nathanson, who later became the editor of Denmark's leading conservative daily, understood the value of steering clear of conflict with the heavily paternalistic Danish absolutism that lasted until 1848, preferring instead to go as far as he could in influencing government and public opinion, for instance by repeatedly defending the politics of tolerance and emancipation. In response to anti-Jewish polemic in 1813 he promoted a Danish translation (1813) of the prominent German sociologist A. F. Lueder's Ueber die Veredlung der Menschen, besonders der Juden, durch die Regierung ('On the Ennobling of Men, and in particular Jews, by the Government'), to which he added a substantial postscript; years later, his biographer claimed that Nathanson also influenced the king's decision to grant Danish Jews virtually equal political and civic status (1814); be this as it may, the king certainly made a point of showing his favour to this reforming and successful Dano-Jewish subject whose open attitude to the newest trends, in Hamburg, Berlin and London, gave him such notable clout.


Nathanson and the Danish Art Scene

  1. From abroad, Nathanson also brought home a new understanding of the role of the arts in civic society. What seems arresting is the speed and self-assurance with which this Jewish arriviste succeeded in obtaining an avant-garde position in a cultural sphere that hitherto had been reserved for members of the traditional elite, be that royal or noble. There were of course late 18th century parallels, but as a rule there had, till around 1790, always been some kind of 'top to bottom' patronage. What basically changed the world of letters and the arts were, first, the more egalitarian ideals of the period and, second, the rapid evolution of a market that profoundly changed the relation between the public and the arts, in particular by creating openings for considerable middle class initiative.

  2. In this field, Nathanson soon made his mark. Like many North European contemporaries he shared the new enthusiasm for Shakespeare.9 In his evening salons where painters, composers and actors joined men of business and trade, the young actor Peter Foersom (1777-1817), the first Danish Hamlet, was a frequent guest. Agreeing that Denmark needed a translation of all Shakespeare, Nathanson encouraged Foersom to proceed with a translation project and eventually helped finance the work's four instalments.10

  3. From Britain Nathanson was familiar with one of the great artistic commercial projects of the period, Boydell's Shakespeare engravings.11 The idea of bringing together a group of artists to illustrate works by a nation's foremost cultural hero had in Denmark already inspired the poet Jens Baggesen (another friend of Nathanson's), the painter Nicolai Abildgaard and the engraver J. F. Clemens to do something similar for the father of Danish literature, Ludvig Holberg.12 Their illustrations (1785-1789) for Baggesen's translation of Holberg's Neo-Latin masterpiece, the satirical novel Niels Klim set the pattern for the project on which Nathanson in 1810 decided to resume work by commissioning a long series of illustrations of scenes from Holberg's comedies, eventually to be engraved and published.13 These projects strengthened Nathanson's links to the artists of the Academy from whom he, in another act of patriotic philanthropy, had already ordered, first a painting (1808) and then an engraving (1808-1809) illustrating the effects of the devastating British bombardment of Copenhagen in September 1807.14 This was an event that, when it was followed by the British seizure of the Danish fleet, roused the nation's indignation to unprecedented heights. Nathanson's support for an engraving (the proceeds from the sales went to rebuilding the fleet) is one among several kindred projects for monuments and commemorations that in a period of national 'awakening' launched a new type of interaction between a middle class public and the arts. Now history painting became a channel for moulding and interpreting the significance of national events, not just as they were perceived by court and nobility, but also by ordinary people. Just as Boydell aimed at "exhibiting Englishness" (in Rosie Dias' apt phrase), Nathanson made Holberg a banner proclaiming not just Danishness tout court, but also his own. It is in this context that the links between Nathanson and the period's foremost Danish history painter are of special interest.15


Nathanson and Eckersberg

  1. It was the engraver J. F. Clemens (1748-1831) who established initial contact between Nathanson and the young Eckersberg. To fill the gap left by the premature death in 1809 of the Royal History Painter Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809), Eckersberg was the Academy's prime candidate. And the rumour spread. By the time he was leaving for Paris (summer 1810) Eckersberg not only had the Academy's support: by then he had in fact already landed a private commission that when finished would bring a welcome supplement to his Academy stipend.

  2. Nathanson's first commissions were for his 'Holberg Gallery',16 which Eckersberg finished while still in Paris (1810 and 1812);17 then followed Nathanson's single largest commission, a huge painting depicting Moses Crossing the Red Sea (Fig. 6). This was precisely the kind of exercise, with "many handsome groups and figures of all ages" (as Eckersberg himself observed)18 that the young history painter needed as a training for future public commissions. With sundry interruptions the project would keep Eckersberg busy, first in Paris and then in Rome, until he returned home in 1816.

  3. On his homecoming there followed further acquisitions from Nathanson, of a Raphael copy19 of Roman prospects (a wedding gift for the eldest daughter),20 and of yet a painting with mythological theme;21 Nathanson further commissioned paintings for a planned new patriotic 'Gallery' with episodes from the 'Old Norse' tragedies22 by Scandinavia's leading Romantic poet, Adam Oehlenschläger (Fig. 1). Once again, Nathanson here opts for motifs from a classic in the national repertoire. Generally overlooked, the three known entries, one of which was engraved, are notable for their fine handling of dramatically charged confrontations in a Norse setting.