- Hvis engle kunne male . . . Jens Juels portrætkunst
The title of this superb exhibition—If angels were to paint . . . Jens Juels portraiturist—builds on a passage extracted from the diary of Hans Hansen written in 1794. Hansen, a student of Juels, had remarked admiringly of the Danish master: “If angels paint, I hardly believe that they could do it better.” Hansen’s analogy strikes the specialist in eighteenth-century art as a disconcertingly odd one, for we are unaccustomed to equating portraiture with the disembodied pure spirit of angels. Portraits, on the contrary, are about bodies, and particular bodies at that. Since the Renaissance, theoreticians of art have asserted that those who represented portrait subjects exercised less genius than painters of myth or history, since grasping a likeness seemed to be so thoroughly circumscribed within the domain of substance. Hardly the stuff of angels, it followed from this assumption that the act of fixing a likeness was mechanical—the result of the hand’s work rather than that of the head.
Although such a view has long been discredited, a negative bias against portraiture as a serious art form nonetheless endured well into the twentieth century. Thanks to recent studies by such scholars as Ann Bermingham, Marcia Pointon, and Mary Sheriff, however, we are now able to see the rich play of artifice and invention involved in portraiture. From this perspective the pictures painted by Jens Juel (1745–1802) provide an especially fertile field of inquiry for the student of eighteenth-century culture. What strikes one here is sheer variety. And what impresses is Juels’s ability to assimilate the codes and conventions of the genre and turn them to new expressive uses. Frederiksborg Castle, home of the Danish historical museum, is host to this exhibition of the work of Denmark’s most prominent eighteenth-century artist. One hundred and twenty-four paintings of portrait subjects by Juels are on display, as well as two dozen or so drawings.
Jens Juels was born in the village of Balslev in Funen in 1745. At the age of fifteen Juels traveled to Hamburg, where he served an apprenticeship to the painter Michael Gehrmann. In 1766, he returned to Denmark at a most favorable moment. Juels was one of the first Danish artists to benefit directly from the attention and support bestowed by the Danish [End Page 135] crown on the visual arts. Juels’s peregrinations took him all over Europe between 1772 and 1780, when he finally returned to Copenhagen for good. Some of the most arresting portraits in the exhibition were painted during his stay in Geneva. One example is Juels’s portrait of the Swiss natural scientist, Charles Bonnet (1720–1793) painted in 1777 (no. 37). Bonnet’s earliest researches dealt with insects, but because of weakening eyesight he eventually shifted to an investigation of photosynthesis in plants. Juels’s association with the scientist was more than a passing one, for he collaborated with another artist to illustrate the collected work of Bonnet. In Juels’s representation, the iridescent green-red sheen of Bonnet’s dressing gown, which shimmers just like a dragonfly’s wings, may be a sign of Bonnet’s fascination with insects (as well as providing proof of Juels’s amazing ability to conjure up the illusion of taffeta), but the artist ultimately chooses not to define the man as a scientist. Rather, he shows him as philosopher—as the author of the Recherches philosophiques sur les preuves du Christianisme, 1771. Bonnet wrote of the picture: “Herr Juel has painted me as if I was in deep meditation over the Resurrection or the perfection of living creatures.” We are startled to learn that Bonnet was deaf and almost completely blind at the time the portrait was painted. Thus Juels has configured Bonnet as a remarkable imagination at work—one that conceived experiments, problems, and solutions in the mind’s eye.
Introversion demands its complementary opposite, which the exhibition’s organizers have provided by hanging Juels’s portrait of Isabelle de Charri...