Behind the painting: Martinus Rørbye’s “The Prison of Copenhagen”, 1831


Martinus Rørbye, The Prison of Copenhagen, 1831. Painting courtesy of the Danish National Gallery of Denmark. Click the picture to see it in a higher resolution

This painting is the subject of today’s post. But before we get to the painting itself, we’ll have to go on a little detour.

Years ago, in my high school days, I went with my class on a trip to Italy. One of the most remarkable experiences of that trip was climbing to the top of the tower of the old city hall in the medieval town of Siena. At the top of which my history teacher told me and my fellow students, that this building had been the inspiration for the city hall in Copenhagen, Denmark. Since then I have always been thinking of Siena when I’ve walked past the city hall in Copenhagen which was build between 1892 and 1905 as the 6th city hall of Copenhagen throughout history.


The current city hall in Copenhagen left and Siena city hall on the right.

Considering how many danish artists and architects traveled to Italy as part of their studies throughout the 18th and 19th century, it is not surprising that some parts and buildings of Copenhagen have a distinct mark of Italian style. That is especially the case in the areas of the city that were destroyed during the great fire of 1795 and the British bombardment in 1807. These parts of town were often sought out by the painters of the 19th century who, being far from the colony of Danish painters in Rome, would still get a bit of that Italian atmosphere. One particular place that seems to have been preferred by many was the small alley named Slutteristræde which lies between the new courthouse and prison which were build after the fire. Perhaps the most famous painting of the alley and the two arches that closed off the ends of it, is Martinus Rørbye’s “The Prison of Copenhagen” painted in 1831.


Martinus Rørbye as depicted by his fellow Danish painter Constantin Hansen in an early sketch for Hansen’s painting “A company of Danish artists in Rome, 1837”, courtesy of the Danish National Gallery

The 1796 fires cleared big parts of the inner city of Copenhagen, which gave the government and the leading Danish architects a chance to review the design of the city and renew it, much like it was the case following the 1666 fire of London, which gave Sir Christopher Wren his chance to build Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Just as it had been the case in London, new major landmarks had to be build in Copenhagen. Around Nytorv (New Square) the old buildings had all vanished in the fire, amongst them the old city prison, the city hall and the court hall. The task of rebuilding large parts of Copenhagen was given to the country’s leading architect C.F. Hansen.


On June 6 1795 large parts of Copenhagen burned to the ground. This drawing shows Nytorv and the old (4th) city hall burning. On the left of the city hall is the entrance to Slutteristræde. Courtesy of the Copenhagen City Museum

At Nytorv C.F. Hansen was asked to build a new complex comprising a city hall, a courthouse and a prison, and since he had, as most other Danish architects, been to Italy to study the old masters, he settled on a design that was as taken out of street of Rome. The plans for the buildings were accepted on March 4th 1800, but Denmark’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, which lead to the city being bombarded by British forces and a state bankruptcy in 1813, meant that the complex was not finished until 1815. The complex has survived to this date, although all the buildings are now used by courts, as the city council moved to the new city hall (shown above) which was build in 1905.


Early sketch by Rørbye. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark.

The painting by Rørbye which I showed you at the beginning, shows us a small section of C.F. Hansen’s big complex, namely the part of Slutteristræde which separates the courthouse and the prison, as seen from Hestemøllestræde. On the right side of the painting, behind the big archway, is the prison and on the left is the courthouse. In the background part of the other archway, which opens out towards Nytorv, can be seen. On top of each archway is a small bridge which allows people to cross over the alley from the courthouse into the prison. Those found guilty in the court will have to cross one of these two bridges on their way to prison, just like prisoners in Venice, Italy has to cross over the Ponte dei Sospiri or the Bridge og Sighs, which also links a courthouse to a prison. It is highly likely that C.F. Hansen was inspired by that exact bridge as he named his two bridges after it and called them The Bridges of Sighing.


Ponte dei Sospiri (The Bridge of Sighs) in Venice. Prisoners on their way to the prison would get their last chance to sigh at the beauty of Venice while crossing this bridge.

When Rørbye painted his picture Denmark was still an absolute monarchy (and would stay so until 1849). Which meant that artists and writers had to be very careful when criticizing those in power. Censorship was tough and criticizing the King could be punished by death. In spite of this Rørbye seems to have included a series of points of critique in this painting. For instance, it is striking that in his otherwise very detailed painting, he seems to have deliberately blurred the text above the entrance to the prison, which should have read (in English translation): “For the common safety.” Is he hinting that it might in fact not be the case?


Close-up of the inscription over the entrance to the prison.

The 1820s and 1830s saw an increase in the demand for reform and a wish for freedom of speech which would find its climax in 1849 with the peaceful revolution which lead to the fall of the absolute monarchy and the introduction of democracy in Denmark. But when Rørbye painted his picture in 1831, he still had to hide his views on society what was wrong with it within his picture. Of course most people easily understood the symbolism of the painting and it became widely popular as a reprint.


Early sketch by Rørbye. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark.

Now… I am not an expert on art or symbolism, but I’d like to give my idea about who I think some the characters in the painting are, and what they represent. This is my personal reading of the painting, and I may very well be mistaken. To make it easier for the reader to follow which characters I am talking about, I’ve created this little overview:

The Scales of Justice
Reprensented by an old sales woman, using a scale to measure the weight of her goods. She represents Lady Justice with her scales, but she has been placed in the shadow cast by the courthouse, perhaps an attempt from Rørbye to tell the viewers that justice has been placed in the shadow.

The grieving mother
A mother stands right underneath one of the two Bridges of Sighs with her child pressing its head against her shoulder in what could be seen as crying. She is looking towards the prison on the other side of the alley. The father of the child is nowhere to be seen. One might interpret that as if he is in the prison, which the mother is looking towards. Or maybe he is being walked from the courthouse to the prison through one of the two Bridges of Sighing, having just been sentenced.

The young couple
With their backs to the viewer and looking at each other, the world screened off by an umbrella, this young couple seems unaware of the world around them. They don’t seem interested in other people and their fates.

The Misanthrope
In this dark figure Rørbye seems to have included a misanthrope to his painting. He, just like the woman with the scales (of justice) walks in the shadow of the courthouse. And his posture seems to be saying: “Because the world is perfidious, I am going into mourning”. Just it reads underneath his fellow misanthrope in Pieter Breugel’s famous painting from 1568. Despite it being daylight, he is carrying a light, walking through the dark and miserable world.

The silenced witness
This man looks as if he is waiting to be called to the courthouse, perhaps as a witness. But his mouth is covered, maybe to show that truth is often silenced in the courts.

The Dandy
This man is in the center of the painting and seems to be there only to show off and be seen at the center of power. An attempt from Rørbye to ridicule the young dandies who were all looks and very little else.

The lawyer and his clerk
Hurrying towards the courthouse with no time to stop, this lawyer strides through the herd of people, with his clerk behind him, carrying the documents for the case they are about to present in court.

The bargainers
These three men seem to be bargaining, perhaps over the price of representation in the court, or perhaps over a compromise to an ongoing case. Rørbye seems to include them to tell us, that court cases are as much about bargaining as it is about justice. Another interpretation could be that the older man is a moneylender, whom the younger man is asking for a loan, while a friend or passer-by tries to warn him against borrowing money, by gesturing towards the prison which also held a large amount of debtors.

The prisoner
Looking from behind bars a prisoner takes in the view of the busy alley.

The young mother
A young mother with two children seems to be looking at something outside the picture. Is she looking towards the future of her family after their fate has recently been decided in court?

The soldier
During the reign of King Christian VI of Denmark (1808-1839) guards were placed throughout the capital.

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