With its unique collection of French Impressionist art and rural landscaped grace, Ordrupgaard stands as a monument to the visionary legacy of one man’s passion for art.
By Annette Rosenvold Hvidt
Wilhelm Hansen, the creator of Ordrupgaard, was born in Copenhagen in 1868. He died at his estate in 1936. Wilhelm Hansen enjoyed a long and remarkable executive career within the insurance industry. He was appointed Councillor of State and is often described as being a very independent and industrious person with a unique sense of passionate determination – not least as an art collector. Wilhelm Hansen married Henny Soelberg Jensen in 1891. They had met at a course to learn Volapük; an artificial language that with its idealism and trans-lingual nature appealed to them both.
As early as 1892, Wilhelm Hansen purchased his first Danish painting: *Standing Cow* by J. Th. Lundbye, and his collection steadily expanded. He would entertain discussions on the arts with painter Peter Hansen; they were old school friends and the artist helped the collector gain firsthand insight into the contemporary Danish art scene. Wilhelm Hansen slowly developed a select collection of Danish 19th and 20th century art. A majority of the acquired works bore witness to his preoccupation with the lone wolves of the art world, such as L.A. Ring, Vilhelm Hammershøi and Theodor Philipsen in addition to a number of artists from the island of Funen: Johannes Larsen, Fritz Syberg and Peter Hansen. The Golden Age of Danish art – i.e. the early 19th century – was represented with works by artists such as Eckersberg, Købke, P.C. Skovgaard, and Wilhelm Marstrand. In addition to his interest in pictorial art, Wilhelm Hansen also purchased Danish sculptural art and decorative art.
Wilhelm Hansen’s most remarkable achievement as an art collector – and the main attraction at Ordrupgaard – was his collection of French art, which when it was rapidly compiled over a brief period during the First World War gave rise to the idea of opening a museum. His ambition was to expand public awareness of French contemporary art and the first paintings he purchased during his numerous business travels to Paris were works by Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. A significant vehicle in the acquisition of his French collection was the consortium that Wilhelm Hansen co-founded in 1918 with art collector Herman Heilbuth (1861-1945) and the art dealers Winkel & Magnussen. Their expressed aim was to bring outstanding French art to Scandinavia and they purchased several complete collections in Paris. These were divided among the members of the consortium, allowing them to keep individual pieces for themselves and sell the paintings that didn’t catch their interest.
The collection of French paintings and pastels is one of northern Europe’s most eminent and features works by influential artists from the 19th and early 20th century. The collection is testament to Wilhelm Hansen’s interest in the revolutionary developments within French art in the 19th century with emphasis on Impressionism. He had a keen eye for Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir and Paul Gauguin, who are all prominently represented. The collection is an entirely private collection in nature and is characterised by a subjective, yet nonetheless quality-minded and to some extent systematic, approach. The collection features at least one work by the leading artists within each artistic movement around the time of Impressionism.
Wilhelm and Henny Hansen had purchased a large plot of land on the brushwood fringe of the royal game park Dyrehaven, north of Copenhagen. They originally nurtured the intention of building a summer residence but soon decided to settle there permanently, commissioning architect Gotfred Tvede (1863-1947) to develop a design that would include a large gallery with filtered overhead daylight dedicated to Wilhelm Hansen’s French collection. The estate, which was inaugurated in 1918, was designed as an exclusive country seat to include a main residential building and a number of service tenancies for servants, such as his landscape gardener and chauffeur, in addition to a garage, which today houses the museum restaurant, Lavendelhuset. The park itself features an enchanting little folly and the grounds originally included a large hothouse which supplied the family with fruit and vegetables and where flowers and plants for the conservatory and parkland were cultivated. The style and measured choice of material for each individual building mirrors the overall design and each structure is carefully proportioned to serve its purpose. The park itself offers scenic walks but also grants visitors privileged insight into the exoticism and romantic ideals that governed such country estates at the time.
A public museum
In 1922, Wilhelm Hansen suffered a personal and financial setback. The bank in which the consortium had taken out loans folded. Wilhelm Hansen saw no alternative but to sell part of his French collection. He proposed a sale to the Danish state at a price of one million kroner – a generous gesture considering the money that could be made from sales of individual artworks abroad. Nonetheless, the state turned down his offer and a large portion of Wilhelm Hansen’s first collection was sold to foreign buyers. Fortunately, a score of paintings from the collection remained in Denmark to become the core of the collection of French pictorial art at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Wilhelm Hansen sold around half his collection – more or less 82 paintings – to meet demands from his creditors. Among the works were paintings by Cézanne, Manet and Gauguin. Wilhelm Hansen rebounded and soon started to replace what had been lost by purchasing a new select series of French paintings that still adorn the galleries, including Eugène Delacroix’s portrait of *George Sand*. Wilhelm Hansen’s wife, Henny Hansen, stayed on at Ordrupgaard following the death of her husband and the family continued the tradition of opening the door to the collection to visitors on request. Following her death in 1951, it was revealed that she had bequeathed the estate including its collections to the Danish state, and in 1953 Ordrupgaard opened as a state-run art museum.
Landscape paintings are widely represented in the Ordrupgaard collection, which is in fine tune with the parkland character of the estate, which was originally pristine woodland before it was skilfully remodelled by landscape designer Valdemar Fabricius Hansen (1866-1953). Ordrupgaard, from its vantage point by the forest, complements the artistic landscape renderings of its collections with open vistas to the surrounding landscape, allowing visitors to contemplate artistic interpretations in the subtle setting of their underlying motif.
Following the inauguration in 2005 of a new extension to the museum, designed by Zaha Hadid, the original residential area has been brought back to its former glory, refurbished as it is with most of the original interior. The original galleries still house most of the French collection but with the bold addition of the new wing the museum now honours the legacy and spirit of its founder and renews its commitment to the world of art by opening its doors to contemporary exhibitions by a new generation of visionary artists.