By Jane Sandberg
Paul Fischer’s paintings are skyrocketing at auctions in London and New York where they fetch previously unheard of prices for Danish art. In Denmark, he is an equally treasured artist. His captivating, charming and vivid motifs convey a bygone age.
Throughout his career, the Danish artist Paul Fischer had a good eye for Kongens Nytorv and Hotel D’Angleterre. This magnificent square and grand building found their way to his canvases time and time again. It is indeed his Copenhagen motifs that have made him one of the most sought after Danish artists at actions around the world. Fischer was born in 1860. He was christened Poul but later changed his name to Paul following the Francophile sentiments of the time. The small early painting Lygtens Kro from 1878 depicts an inn on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The composition is excellent and each element well represented, yet the painting is not convincingly modern. What young artists of the day brought home from Paris – the metropolis of art – was the so-called grisaille technique where transparent layers of colour are applied with vivid brushwork to the generally monochrome value painting study. This technique was later to brand the arrival of Impressionism in Denmark; however, this small painting from Fischer’s youth bears no sign of his later interest in this technique. Paul Fischer’s academic art studies were limited to the preparatory class at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen. As a disillusioned young man he contacted the xylographer Frederik Hendriksen with the purpose of selling some of his sketches to his magazine Ude og Hjemme. However, Hendriksen immediately recognised his talent as an illustrator and hired him on the spot. Fischer’s career as painter took an upturn. Private collectors showed an interest in him that soon allowed him to purchase a residential home in the fashionable suburb of Hellerup, close to the Sound, where he lived with his family until his death in 1934.
Fischer was a productive painter who mastered canvases both great and small. The collection at Øregaard Museum includes the painting Mågerne fodres på Dronning Louises Bro. It depicts a snowy winter’s day on the Dronning Louise Bridge across the inner city lakes in Copenhagen. People bustle in the foreground, high and low in notable harmony: The man shovelling snow from the pavement, two vibrant hussars in red and blue gala uniform, a maid with plump bare arms; a gentleman with cloak, top hat and umbrella and the butcher’s assistant with his bloodstained apron. Many of the characters are easily recognisable as people close to the artist. The artist’s brother — the organ player Erik Fischer — by the fishmonger’s wagon; the architect Hans Grønneberg carrying his roll of drafts under his arm; a servant at the Fischer home carrying a midwife’s case. To the right, we recognise Fischer’s daughter Harriet accompanying a little girl. Although most of the people are crossing the bridge, something catches their attention. Everyone glances at an incident taking place in the middle of the picture: A boy is standing on the bridge wall feeding the gulls. This mundane event, devoid of high drama or mysticism, is captured by Fischer in a photographic instant. Fischer developed a unique talent in applying the grisaille technique, predominantly featuring the grey-tone and monochrome palette of the value painting. This technique comes to full fruition in the painting Metscafé, which is an atmospheric representation of the fashionable café society. Some of the less familiar aspects of Paul Fischer’s talent are highlighted in some of his many formidable depictions of summer scenes at Båstad in Sweden. The family had a summer cottage here for many years where Fischer painted a great many of his beach motifs portraying lightly clad women. When it comes to female representation, Fischer had a preference for charming young girls and dainty young ladies. But more close to his heart were the daughters of the common man – neat housemaids with their plump arms, white starched aprons and blushing cheeks.
Although Fischer was popular in his day, he was never recognised by the academic field. He suffered the embarrassment of having one of his paintings rejected at the Royal Academy Spring Exhibition – a public humiliation of considerable proportion. It almost seems symptomatic that Fischer’s career was not to take form before Frederik Hendriksen hired him as illustrator. Fischer was a skilled narrator. Mundane events are depicted with a fine sense of drama and empathy. Yet his work is characterised by an absence of opinion. The characters and motifs are represented for what they are; free of the social commentary central to Realism. It was never Fischer’s calling to lend his artistic talent to a cause other than admiring the features of bathing young girls and the radiant colours of flower seller stalls on Højbro Plads. Fischer’s paintings are not the product of urgency of soul but rather the desire to entertain and amuse his audience. There is no mysticism or symbolism in his art, but rather a poetic intensity that through the ages has appealed to a wide audience. Fischer’s motifs are a visual delight. The rest he leaves up to us – his audience.