The Blue Hour of Peder Severin Krøyer

The Blue Hour of Peder Severin Krøyer
Exhibition Catalog published by Hazan Publishing, Neuilly-sur-Seine, 2021 (in French)

Musée Marmottan Monet and Skagens Kunstmuseer, Paris and Skagen. 2021
224 pp., Paper, €35
ISBN:  978-2-7541-1224-6
Exhibition: Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, 28 January-25 July; Skagens Kunstmuseer, 2022.

Reviewed by: 
Giovanna L. Costantini
August 2021

The blue hour, from the French l’heure bleue, is the period of twilight before sunrise and after sunset when the sun dips below the horizon far enough for the sun’s blue wavelengths to diffuse across the sky. It is perceived best from the Nordic countries during summer months where twilight lasts longer due to the earth’s position relative to the sun. The phenomenon is especially evident in the fishing village of Skagen, situated at the northernmost tip of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. There the sun dips only 18 degrees below the horizon, lengthening the dawn and dusk hours in which the air takes on poetic shades of blue.

The Blue Hour of Peder Severin Krøyer accompanies an exhibition presented jointly by the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris and the Skagens Museum in Denmark. Sponsored by Denmark’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Danish Embassy in Paris; the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces; and the New Carlsberg Foundation, the exhibition represents the most comprehensive exhibition in France of the paintings of P.S. Krøyer (1851-1909), one of Denmark’s most celebrated modernists. The catalog is announced by Her Majesty Margrethe II, Queen of Denmark, patron of the exhibition, who compares the artist’s deep, intimate rapport with France to longstanding art relationships between France and Denmark. In many ways this close collaboration between the Musée Marmottan Monet and the Skagens Museum reflects a centuries-old friendship between the two countries, extensive cultural ties and a shared artistic heritage likened to the meeting of two seas that come together at the Skagen promontory.

As contemporaries, Monet and Krøyer represent distinct trajectories of modernist naturalism liberated from an entrenched beaux-art tradition that emerged en plein air in both countries in the later nineteenth century. Each artist encounters a certain quality of life within his immediate milieu, whether among the fishermen and artist colonies of the Danish coast, or the fields, riverbanks, and gardens of the Paris environs. While their aesthetic choices reflect national propensities, they are similarly oriented towards an aestheticized vision of the real world. With realism and Impressionism variations upon the theme of naturalism, each artist is attuned to inherent properties of light manifest in color, to color theory and color value, to the properties of pigments, and to opacity and transparency. Each involves himself with refractive and reflective surfaces, color contrasts, emotivity, sensation.  Their finely nuanced visual perceptions remain subjective, emotive, unique unto themselves.

Both artists early on favored coastal views conducive to immersion in nature, Monet off the coast of Normandy where he spent his childhood, later in Belle-Île-en-Mer, an island off the coast of Brittany in northwest France. For Krøyer it was in Hornbæk, a seaside town on the island of Sjæland, that he encountered the sense of infinitude that characterizes the Scandinavian seas. Both preferred full sunlight, void of shadow, and each used cobalt blue and lead white liberally throughout their careers. Together, their brushstrokes loosened over time with paint applied more quickly, with looser contours, less finished. Their works became more expressive, spontaneous, virtuosic. Seen together, their variations take on a sense of contrapuntal harmony: Krøyer’s naturalism, closer to the clarity of a photograph, centers on light’s transparency and brilliance, on scintillating rays that dance as laughter over Skagen’s sands. Monet’s color separation and staccato application create atmospheres more veiled, vibratory, saturated, autonomous. For each, heightened effects of daylight owe to refined sensitivity to pure color and to the high value levels of certain colors characteristic of immateriality.

The text features essays and catalog entries by Lisette Vind Ebbesen, Director, and Mette Harbo Lehmann, Curator, of the Skagens Kunstmuseer; Érik Desmazières, Member of the Institut and Director of the Musée Marmottan Monet; and Art Historian Dominique Lobstein. One essay by Mette Harbo Lehmann traces Krøyer’s biography, artistic development, and international career, with special emphasis on the social and literary movement known as the “modern breakthrough” in Danish modernism. A second essay considers conceptual relationships between this front and plein air painting relative to new tendencies in Danish art. Lehmann vividly explores Krøyer’s activity in both Danish and French artist colonies during the 1870’s that contributed to his stylistic orientation. Dominique Lobstein’s essay examines Krøyer’s initial training in the studio of Léon Bonnat and his gravitation from history painting towards figurative genre, his Salon presence and ongoing exhibitions in France, his reception among French critics, and his rise to notoriety. This success culminated at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 where he was awarded a gold, first-class medal, and recognition as an Officer of France’s Legion of Honor. In addition to developed essays that accompany each of the paintings in the exhibition, the catalog also contains fascinating narratives of artist camaraderie in the inns of Brittany; excerpts from previously unpublished personal letters, some of which detail the arduous transit from Copenhagen to Skagen by ferry and horse-drawn carriage; evocative descriptions of Skagen’s long twilight hours and unique geographic setting, its glittering sands, pearlescent hazes and dazzling effects of sunlight reflected off the water. There are dramatic accounts of shipwreck and rescue by local fishermen and insightful sketches of contemporary artists such as the French landscapist Germain Pelouse (1838-1891) and the Swedish painter Oscar Björck (1860-1929).

The catalog is replete with stunning reproductions that include many studies of little-known, unpublished artworks important to comparative research. It forms a collection of both private and public imagery through which the sky meets the sea in sheer tonality.