1863 – 1958

Jens Ferdinand Willumsen

J.F. Willumsen  was one of the most versatile artists in Denmark. Throughout his long life he was passionately occupied by artistic questions. He expressed himself in all the media of the visual arts that were available to him, and he continually made new demands of his work. Although Willumsen worked in many artistic media, painting was his preferred art form. He painted all his life, and his paintings constitute by far the greater part of his production. Their thematic and formal range from period to period reflects the very different problems he worked on within this medium.

A considerable part of his life was spent outside Denmark. At home he felt stigmatised and abroad that he did not receive the recognition he deserved. The truth was, however, that J.F. Willumsen was an artist who attracted much attention. For many years his works at The Free Exhibition were awaited with excitement, people were almost disappointed if the effect was not sufficiently surprising and challenging.

Willumsen breathed new life into the art of painting. He drew on tradition, but was also in dialogue with the popular culture of his own age. Quick strokes, caricatures, and loud colours were recurrent elements in many of his works as a painter. As a sculptor his works were monumental, the most famous being The Great Relief, now in the main gallery of the museum but originally intended for a bar in Chicago. Willumsen designed several buildings, including his own home in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen. In the 1930s he also designed a museum for his art and collection. The museum did not open until 1957, in the town of Frederikssund where his grandfather was born.

Scroll through the time line and read about Willumsen’s life.

9/7 1863

Born in Copenhagen as the son of publican Hans Willumsen and Ane Kristine Jensdatter

1882

Graduates as an architect from Copenhagen Polytechnic

1881-1885

tries and fails three times to pass the final exam at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts

1885

Studies at the Free Artists’ School run by P.S. Krøyer and Laurits Tuxen

1888-1889

Travels to Paris and Spain where he encounters the works of El Greco (1541-1614)

1889

First solo exhibition at the Kleis’ Kunsthandel in Copenhagen

1890

Marries the sculptor Juliette Meyer, divorces in 1902. Father to two sons: Jan Bjørn and Bode Bertel

1891

One of the founders of Den Frie Exhibition Hall, started in protest against censorship at the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition. Exhibits the etching Fertility, which contributes to the exhibition becoming a succès de scandale

1893

Purchases his first camera and starts experimenting with photography – including self-portraits and portraits of his family and friends – and using photographs as a basis for his paintings

1893

Purchases his first camera and starts experimenting with photography – including self-portraits and portraits of his family and friends – and using photographs as a basis for his paintings

1890-1894

Lives in Paris, meets Paul Gauguin and other French artists. Visits Norway and Chicago, where he sees the 1893 world fair

1895

Designs his own (now demolished) villa in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen

1898

Architect of Den Frie Exhibition Hall

1897-1900

Appointed artistic director at the Bing & Grøndahl porcelain factory

1900

Exhibits at the world fair Exposition Universelle in Paris. Resides in New York with Edith Wessel in the hope of an international breakthrough. Starts collecting images from newspapers and magazines, which he glues into albums of cuttings, as well as dried plants for a herbarium

1901-1902

Travels to the Alps, Pyrenees and Italy

1903

Marries the sculptor Edith Wilhelmine (Lautrup) Wessel. The couple part around 1928. Father to two daughters: Ingemor Gersemi and Anne-Mathilde (nicknamed Anse)

1903-1905

Based in Paris

1905

Designs his second villa in Hellerup, today owned by the philanthropic association Realdania and currently the home of the artist Olafur Eliasson

1911-1914

Purchases a painting by El Greco and follows the artist’s path to Crete, Italy and Spain. Travels to Tunisia in 1914

1911-1920

Purchases more works for his Old Collection of historical art, including icons, Italian drawings and Venetian paintings

1916

Takes up permanent residence in the South of France

1920

Turns down the offer of a position as professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts

1923

Major retrospective at Den Frie Exhibition Hall. Commissioned by the state of Denmark to make The Great Relief, which is carved in marble in Carrara, Italy over the years that follow

1920s

Campaigns for a museum dedicated to his art and collection. Purchases figures from classical antiquity

1927

Publishes a two-volume work in French on El Greco’s youth. The Great Relief is unveiled at the National Gallery of Denmark, causing a scandal. Works on establishing a ‘Propaganda Bureau’ for Danish art aimed at cultural export

1928-1930

Starts living with the dancer and painter Michelle Bourret, a relationship that lasts until his death. The couple had no children

1930-1932

Four solo exhibitions at Paris galleries. Represented in the 1932 Venice Biennale

1930s

Stays for periods in Venice and Rome, purchases Asian works for his collection, and continues to campaign for and design a museum dedicated to his work and collection

1942

Moves from Nice to Cannes

1947

Exhibits his Old Collection at Charlottenborg. Due to a series of erroneous work attributions the collection receives harsh reviews by experts. Draws up a deed of gift donating his works and collection to the state of Denmark

1954

Moves from Cannes to Le Cannet

1957

Inauguration of J.F. Willumsen’s Museum in Frederikssund, designed by the architect Thyge Hvass. Willumsen is living in Cannes and never gets to see the museum, but issues the verdict that it looks like “a sawmill in Switzerland” from the South of France

4/4 1958

Willumsen dies in Le Cannet and is buried in the grounds of J.F. Willumsen’s Museum

1989

Another major Willumsen collection belonging to the newspaper editor Victor Petersen is installed at Odden Manor near Hjørring, and is now open to the public

2005

Willumsen’s Museum is extended to three times its original size by the architect Theo Bjerg

The film is produced by the National Gallery of Danmark in collaboration with The J.F. Willumsen Museum. Read more about J.F. Willumsen på Art Stories – online, The National Gallery of Denmark’s online universe of stories of art.

Ahead of His Time

J.F. Willumsen was one of the most versatile artists in Denmark. Throughout his long life he was passionately occupied by artistic questions. He expressed himself in all the media of the visual arts that were available to him, and he continually made new demands of his work.

A considerable part of his life was spent outside Denmark. At home he felt stigmatised and abroad that he did not receive the recognition he deserved. The truth was, however, that J.F. Willumsen was an artist who attracted much attention. For many years his works at The Free Exhibition were awaited with excitement, people were almost disappointed if the effect was not sufficiently surprising and challenging.