“Niels Ryberg with his son Johan Christian and daughter in law Engelke, born Falbe” 1797. For a larger version click the picture. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
As a historian I find portraits of historic people to be extremely interesting, especially portraits which they had stood model for themselves. Not only do they give us a chance to look the people we as historians read and write about straight in the eyes, but they also give us a chance to see how they wanted to portray themselves.
One of my favorite portraits is by the Danish painter Jens Juel (1745-1802) titled “Niels Ryberg with his son Johan Christian and daughter in law Engelke, born Falbe”, though it is more commonly known as “The Ryberg Family”.
For those who know Jens Juel as a painter, it is clear that the Ryberg family must have been rich in order to have him paint this family portrait. For those who are not familiar with Juel, it should be enough to say that he is considered one of the finest portrait painters in Danish history and was at the time director of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
The Ryberg family’s wealth mainly came from trading. Niels Ryberg (seen sitting) had been a member of the board at the Asiatic company at the height of its financial power. He had helped improve the Danish fishing “industry” and he had been involved in trade with the province of Iceland until all trading there was monopolized. He had also been a member of the West Indian trading company at a time when the sale of sugar from the Danish West Indian colonies made up almost 70% of the country’s income from exports.
Sketch from 1795 by Jens Juel. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
Therefore one might wonder, why no symbols of trade has been included in the painting, and why the background of the family painting is a counrty-side estate and not the sea from which they gained their fortune. One reason might be, that Niels Ryberg had come from a humble beginning as a peasant son. His parents were serfs at a big estate in Jutland, but Niels Ryberg (then named Niels Bertelsen) was sent to Aalborg to work in his uncle’s trading business at the age of 11. Many historians still say he ran away at the age of 13 in order to avoid being forced to stay at the estate which he belonged to, as was the law for peasants aged 14-40. But historian Jens Holmgaard proved this wrong in 2001, when he discovered new sources that clearly showed that Niels was only 11 when he was sent to Aalborg. Had it been only to avoid serfdom and military service, he could have been with his family for at least two more years, so other explanations are more likely.
Some of Jens Juel’s sketches for the painting. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
That being said, Niels Ryberg (he took the name Ryberg after the village he was born in) did show that he was an opponent of serfdom, which he would live to see abolished in 1788. Before that he had bought the two country-side estates Øbjerggård and Hagenskov (now Frederiksgave), the latter of which is shown in the painting. On both estates he set the serfs free, helped the peasants to build new farms or repair the old ones by giving them free timber from his woods and tiles from his tile factories. He build schools and churches as well as new mills and gave away books and paid for the upkeep of doctors and nurses on his estates. So perhaps it is not surprising that he chose to be portrayed sitting, relaxing, as he must have deserved after a long successful life in front of his biggest estate. Ready to hand over the family business to his son, who seems to be gesturing with his hand at all their surroundings, the great life achievement of Niels Ryberg. As if to point out that what was important to Niels Ryberg was not just the business empire, but much more what it allowed him to do, help others from similar conditions as those he came from and improve their chances of becoming as successful in life as he had become. That is the main reason I really love this painting.
Close up on the Hagenskov estate in the painting. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
Last week I asked my good friend Ida Kristiansen Kaadt, who is an art teacher, what she thought of the painting, and one of the things she noted, which I had not noticed myself, was that there seemed to be something dark and threatening lurking in the picture. The dark clouds coming in from the right side over the young couple who are about to take over the family estate. It is as if Jens Juel foresaw history when he painted this. Niels Ryberg would die in 1804 after which Johan Christian would continue the running of the family estates and the business empire. But the Napoleonic Wars would destroy all this. With the loss of the Danish navy in 1807 and the war with Great Britian, the trade with the colonies plummeted and in 1813 the Danish state went bankrupt and with it the Ryberg family. The Frederiksgave estate was taken by the state. It would later be the home of Crown Prince Frederik (the later king Frederik VII) and his infamous mistress and later morganatic spouse, the former ballet dancer and stage actor Louise Christine Rasmussen, also known as Countess Danner.