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Dane reign by Ralph Heimans

Dane reign

by Mette Skougaard and Thomas Lyngby, 2 October 2018

In 2006, Australian artist Ralph Heimans created a portrait of Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark for the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg, which is also Denmark’s National Portrait Gallery.

The choice of an Australian artist for the commission was unorthodox but obvious, as it represented a great opportunity to strengthen the international bond between the country ‘down under’, where the Crown Princess was born, and the kingdom in the north, where one day she will be Queen. We wanted to establish a focus on her homeland, and to introduce Australian portrait art to the people of Denmark. Through the kind assistance of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, we were introduced to a number of prominent Australian portrait artists, and subsequently chose to proceed with Ralph Heimans for the commission.

Work on the portrait began in 2005, when Heimans visited Denmark and was shown through the Frederiksborg Castle and Museum of National History. He met the Crown Princess on several occasions, taking photographs and producing sketches during a lengthy sitting. He also had the opportunity to visit a number of rooms at the royal residence at Fredensborg Palace, which led to the decision to depict the Crown Princess in the famous Garden Room. This beautiful 18th century rococo interior was most famously used as the setting for Laurits Tuxen’s painting of King Christian IX and Queen Louise with family in the Garden Room (1882-83).

Christian IX and his family in the Garden Room at Fredensborg, 1883 by Laurits Tuxen

This is also the room in which Miss Mary Donaldson was presented to the public on the occasion of her engagement to the Danish Crown Prince in October 2003. Here, within the architectural setting that embodies the history of the Danish monarchy, the artist found the ideal context in which to symbolise the Princess’ path from young Australian fiancée to her present role as the Danish Crown Princess and future Queen. Heimans visited Fredensborg and the Crown Princess again in September 2005 and January 2006, in order to make further studies, then continued working on the portrait in his studio.

Study for portrait of HRH Crown Princess Mary by Ralph Heimans

In the painting, the Crown Princess is shown almost full figure, standing elegantly dressed in a modern suit, but without obvious signs of her status. A soft golden light streams into the room from the window on the right, towards which she is looking. Standing in front of a sofa with chairs around her, she is in the midst of donning a pair of gloves, as if about to leave the palace. A coat lies at the ready over the back of the chair in front of her. The mirror behind her bears her reflection, whilst providing a deeper perspective into the interior of the Garden Room.

At first impression the room seems very true to life – the furniture, with its gilt rococo ornaments and silk covers rendered in meticulous detail, is immediately recognisable as that of the Garden Room at Fredensborg. On closer inspection, however, the room is replete with subtle incongruities and alterations. The most evident change is the substitution of a large mirror for Jacopo Fabris’ 18th century landscape featuring Roman ruins. Reflected in the mirror on the back wall of the Garden Room, Fabris’ paintings have been replaced by a view of historic buildings from Constitution Dock in Hobart.

The inclusion of the mirror provides a window into a new visual dimension and becomes an artistic device intended to represent the two worlds of the Crown Princess: her present-day life as a member of the Danish Royal Family, and her earlier life in Australia. In the foreground, the depiction of the Crown Princess preparing to leave the palace alludes to her present life, duties and obligations. She is depicted in a contemplative moment as she is about to undertake her public duties, and the viewer is prompted to imagine her train of thought as she prepares to move from private surrounds into this public realm. In the background, the reflected image reminds the viewer of her Australian past, with the view of the city of her birth. The moment of departure is thus metaphorical, representing the moment of transition between those two worlds of private and public life, as well as the bridge between the past and the present.

Heimans’ painting draws upon the pictorial tradition of royal portraiture, whilst irreverently infusing the tradition with new ideas and meaning. Rather than constituting a formal, official image of the Crown Princess, the portrait departs from tradition by presenting her in a more informal ‘everyday’ context, adopting a narrative approach to express the story of her life. The gloves, for example, a common symbol of status found in traditional royal portraits such as Holbein’s Portrait of Princess Christina of Denmark (1538), here become an integral part of the portrait’s narrative, and a metaphor for the transition between two worlds. It is a narrative that contributes to a far more accessible vision of the Crown Princess, as though the viewer is allowed a glimpse into her real world: rather than a solely symbolic public figure, she becomes a person the viewer can empathise with.

Portrait of Princess Christina of Denmark, 1538 by Hans Holbein the Younger

The portrait was unveiled by the Crown Princess at Frederiksborg in 2006; since then it has gained much attention, both nationally and internationally, from art historians and the castle’s many visitors alike, quickly becoming one of the most popular works on display.

So when the museum decided to celebrate the 50th birthday of His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik in 2018 with the commissioning of a new portrait of the heir to the Danish throne, Ralph Heimans was a natural choice for the project. The museum wanted him to create a work that would be a counterpart to the portrait of the Crown Princess; the paintings are to be seen as complementary works, but also as rich, engaging portraits in their own right. And the result was presented to the public on the occasion of the unveiling, made by the Crown Prince and his four children, at Frederiksborg on May 24 this year.

Portrait of HRH Crown Prince Frederik, 2018 by Ralph Heimans

The new portrait is – like the first – set in the Garden Room at Fredensborg Palace, and both have the same dimensions (170 x 250cm). But where the Crown Princess is seen standing on the right side of her portrait, the Crown Prince is depicted on the left of his, so the two works create a natural, singular entity when viewed together. By presenting the underlying mood of the works as complementary, the artist is making a narrative statement, not just about each individual, but also about the couple as a unit.

The years between the creation of the two portraits are also reflected in the new work, with the painting revealing what has transpired in the intervening time, and the status of the Crown Prince’s life now at age 50.

Study for portrait of HRH Crown Prince Frederik by Ralph Heimans

The Crown Prince seems to have risen from the chair at the table next to him, which bears a folder with his monogram. As with the best of Heimans’ work, there is the suggestion of a narrative beyond the picture frame. The subject is stepping forward and looks ahead with the hint of a smile on his lips; his gaze does not meet ours, but we can see what he is looking at. As in the portrait of Crown Princess Mary, Heimans has replaced some of Jacopo Fabris’ recessed paintings in the Garden Room with mirrors, but this time they show the present – and indeed the future – rather than the past. In front of the Crown Prince, reflected in the mirror, are the Crown Princess and the couple’s four children, gathered around a table. The oldest child, Prince Christian, is standing, resting one arm on the back of a chair and looking towards his father.

Behind the family we can follow Crown Prince Frederik’s gaze further, through two of the room’s windows, to the Palace Garden. We see the outline of the great marble monument by the 18th century Danish sculptor Johannes Wiedewelt, symbolising the Danish nation, and there is an evening sky over the landscape so characteristic of Denmark, with distinctive colours and clouds.

Heimans has not replaced all the paintings with mirrors. But in this portrayal, the artist is more loyal to the story of the Crown Prince than to Fabris’ original works. So in one of them – on the far left – he has discreetly depicted the Crown Prince’s mother, Her Majesty the Queen, wearing a long, dark red dress. From her position beneath the painting’s antique, triumphal arch-like portal, she – like us, unnoticed – quietly observes her son and his family. In front of the painting in which the Queen is portrayed, there is a table, on which Heimans has placed two mythical Greenlandic tupilaqs. Together with Wiedewelt’s Denmark monument outside, they indicate the kingdom over which the Crown Prince will one day reign.

There is a sense of completeness in this portrait: the Crown Prince is presented surrounded by his immediate family – the children who have come into the world since his marriage, and the Crown Princess, whose background and transformation were depicted in Heimans’ earlier work. The Crown Prince is perceived as part of the order of succession, which is his innate destiny. From the picture with the historic scenery his mother observes him; meanwhile, he looks ahead at his eldest son, his eventual successor. The three of them are subtly linked through the artist’s choice of colour, which draws the eye through the composition, accentuating the depth of perspective he has skilfully created.

The Crown Prince is wearing the Danish Navy’s company uniform. He is carrying the cap in his left hand and a pair of white gloves in his right, a small but significant detail that mirrors Princess Mary’s portrait, and one which hints at their Royal duties. Denmark’s two Royal Orders of Chivalry are depicted: the Crown Prince is wearing the Order of the Elephant – Denmark’s highest ranked order – on the blue ribbon that hangs from his left shoulder, and around his neck is the Grand Commander Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog. On the uniform’s jacket we also see the chest star of the Order of the Elephant and the Dannebrog Star, along with a number of medals.
Here we see 50 year-old Crown Prince Frederik in his personal life and in his role as the heir to the throne. He has assumed the responsibility of being the future ruler of Denmark, The Faroe Islands and Greenland, and he performs his duties together with the family he has created with the Crown Princess. His eldest son, Prince Christian, will one day succeed him. Through the portrait, we are afforded a glimpse of this family in the royal setting at Fredensborg, at a moment in the early evening, an interplay between their public and private roles.

The result is a poignant and personal portrait of the Prince and his family, that reflects both the time of its creation and the time that has passed since the portrait of the Crown Princess was created. The pair will no doubt become works of enduring significance in the collection of the Museum.