Painted in 1896, Oleanders in Bloom, Capri, is Krøyer’s love letter to the Amalfi coast: its architecture, flora, and above all its light. Set against an ultramarine sky, the crimson exuberance of a mature oleander tree dominates the scene in a firework-like burst of flowers. On either side, the wall of a building and the niche of a well to the left act as repoussoirs framing the scene, leading the eye into a veritable ‘symphony in white’. Below this the contrasting vermillion flowers of a pot of martagon lilies connect the oleander to the lower half, and to the row of pot plants along the ledge. The apparent simplicity of the scene is animated by countless closely observed details, from the copper bucket and its sinuously flowing rope lying next to the wet ground, to the delicately fallen petals strewn along the path, and even the sleeping cat – the very embodiment of southern dolce far niente. On the other hand, the absence of human figures, hitherto omnipresent in Krøyer’s significant works, only serves to heighten the perfection of colour harmonies and perspectival planes.
Dating from three years after the artist’s ‘blue period’ masterpiece, Summer Evening on Skagen’s South Beach (fig. 1), the present work represents a culmination of Krøyer’s Impressionistic ambitions in free use of colour and assured brushwork. While Krøyer’s oeuvre is defined in the public imagination by his views of Skagen on the north coast of Jutland, the luminosity of his art would be unthinkable without his experience of the light of the south. The present work can even be seen as a development of the white draperies and deep blue skies of the Skagen works, transposed to Italy.
Krøyer and his wife Marie arrived in Capri on 10 June 1896, remaining there at least until the end of August. Italy generally, and especially the island of Capri, had a special significance for the couple as they had honeymooned there some six years earlier, during extended travels via Florence, Rome, and Naples. In 1890 they made at least three separate short trips to the island, in February, July, and October.
Smaller studies from this time reveal Krøyer’s burgeoning interest in the tonal harmonies of bright sun on whitewashed walls, such as Cloister (Skagens Museum), or The Bay at Amalfi. View from Albergo della Luna (The Hirschsprung Collection, Copenhagen). The artist is even said to have whitewashed his studio on his return to Denmark from one of these journeys, the better to recreate the dazzling light. It is tantalising to see the influence of John Singer Sargent, whose paintings in Capri in 1878, and especially Staircase in Capri (fig. 2) are so comparable to Krøyer’s. Although there is no evidence the two artists met, Krøyer may have been aware of Sargent’s work through their mutual friend, the Finnish artist Albert Edelfelt.
Krøyer had made his first journey to southern Europe some eighteen years earlier. The artists of the Danish Golden Age, from Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg to Christen Købke, had earlier oriented Danish art towards Italy and especially Rome. Krøyer’s motivation in travelling to Spain was novel among Danes, and doubtless influenced by the prevailing taste for Spanish 17th century art and especially the work of Ribera and Velázquez, visible in the work of his teacher Léon Bonnat.
In 1878 Krøyer went to Madrid, and later to Granada, with which he was so taken that a planned two week stay turned into five months. There he painted his first large work executed out of doors in the south, Two Gypsy Women Outside their Cottage (Statens Museum, Copenhagen). In a letter to fellow artist Laurits Tuxen, Krøyer noted the perils of plein air painting in such conditions, which makes the apparently effortless achievement of the present work all the more impressive:
'I have completed my sunshine picture…It is a quite hugely difficult task to paint a picture with figures in natural size in the open air, and especially in sunshine; reflections from white walls, yellow ground, green plants, a light so strong that one goes colour-blind looking at it, the wind that catches hold of the picture and topples it, and then the heat, oh yes, it is a lively business. You have after all tried it with smaller pictures, but it is many times worse with a large one' (Krøyer, letter from Granada, 8 July 1878).
The Spanish journey of 1878 was followed by the Krøyers’ first trip to Italy in 1879-80. Taking Rome as their goal, the visit also included a month in Florence, and a couple of weeks in Naples including Capri. Two works stand out from this journey, one outdoors and one interior: Italian Field Labourers. Abruzzo (Funen Art Museum, Odense), whose red and white tones are reminiscent of the present work, and Italian Village Hatters (The Hirschsprung Collection, Copenhagen), which established Krøyer’s reputation in Paris as the leading Danish artist of his day.
Krøyer’s journey to Italy in 1890 inspired the more Impressionistic handling visible in his work in the following decade. Notable in comparison with the present work is Roses of 1893 (fig. 3), depicting the artist’s wife in a Skagen garden. The closest Krøyer came to the French Impressionism of Monet, the composition with its dominant rose shrub and dappled light clearly informed the present work. Key among the Skagen works of this year is of course Summer Evening on Skagen’s South Beach of 1893. The work captures the carefree existence and cosmopolitan elegance that defined the painting community in Skagen. Compellingly evocative of the end of the nineteenth century, the image has proved enduringly popular; its lyricism continues to resonate in the imagination to this day, not only across Denmark but the world-over. Depicting Marie Krøyer, the painter's wife, with Anna Ancher arm in arm walking along the shore on Skagen's South Beach, the scene was inspired by a post-dinner-party stroll with Krøyer and Marie, fellow Skagen artists Michael and Anna Ancher, and authors Otto Benzon and Sophus Schandorph and their wives.
Krøyer first went to Skagen in 1882. Already widely travelled, a regular visitor to Paris and an exhibitor at the annual Paris Salon, Krøyer brought with him a worldliness that was in notable contrast to the fishermen and the majority of artists that lived there. Like his artist-friends the Anchers, Krøyer became captivated by Skagen’s light, landscape, and the simple life of the local community. In the years that followed he returned annually during the summer months, spending the rest of the year travelling or in Copenhagen where he kept a studio. In the summer of 1889 he married Marie Triepcke, whom he had met in Paris. Together the couple made the most of Skagen’s close knit artistic camaraderie, enjoying the company of the writers, musicians, intellectuals and artists who gathered there during the summer.
A study for the present composition, of 42 by 32cm and oil on panel, also dated 1896 and inscribed Anacapri, was sold at Bruun Ramussen on 17 April 2007.
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