J.F. Willumsen – the artist

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.

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.


In 1882 J.F. Willumsen started the education as a painter at the Academy of Art in Copenhagen. But in spite of three attempts he never passed the final examination. He finished his education as painter at Kunstnernes Studieskole (The Artists’ School)


Willumsen grew up as an only child in his parents’ home in Copenhagen. His father ran a pub and later a gentlemen’s outfitter’s. Willumsen believed that the sculptor Jens Adolph Jerichau may have been his real father. His relationship to his mother was always good, while his relationship to his father was more problematic. When his mother died in 1899, he executed a large sepulchral monument to his parents, which was erected in Vestre Kirkegård in 1901. His father did not die until 1910.

Willumsen was twice married. His first marriage was to Juliette Meyer, with whom he had two sons, Jan and Bode. In the 1890s Juliette produced a number of works in white faience in the style of the period. Juliette modelled for him on occasion, among other things for the etching Lady Out Walking and The Family Vase (The Danish Museum of Decorative Art).

In 1903 he married the sculptress Edith Wessel, with whom he had two daughters, Gersemi and Anse. Edith, who created figures in wood, bronze, marble and multicloured wax, appeared frequently in Willumsen’ works. She is A Mountain Climber, Hagemanns Kollegium and The Royal Museum of Fine Arts), the mother in The Evening Soup and in The Painter and His Family and the woman in After the Storm. The two girls also appear in a number of works.

Willumsen spent his old age together with the French dancer and painter Michelle Bourret, who can be found in several of his paintings from the 1930s. All Willumsen’s wives were artists and they both supported and helped him in his art.

The Old Collection

The J.F. Willumsen Museum preserves around 2000 works from J.F. Willumsen’s Old Collection, of which unfortunately only a few items are open to the public because of space restrictions.

Willumsen’s Old Collection consists of a good 2000 works with 327 paintings, 220 sculptures, 756 drawings, 233 prints, as well as coins, medals, ivory works, stained glass, textiles, craft works, jewellery and knick-knacks. 125 of the works are Danish paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. Most of the works come from Europe, but the collection also includes some Asian and a small number of African objects. An early masterpiece by El Greco and a late one by Jacopo Bassano are among the most important older foreign works in Denmark. In addition there are fine drawings by among others Parmigianino, Guercino, Giorgio Vasari, Andrea del Sarto, Giam­bat­tista Tiepolo, Giacomo Guardi and Paul Gauguin. In time, as the whole collection is investigated, a number of other important artists’ names will very likely emerge.

The collection, with its 756 Italian drawings, 200 of which have been identified, is the fourth-largest in Scandinavia after the state collections in Stockholm, Copen­hagen and Oslo.

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The J.F. Willumsen Museum

The J.F. Willumsen Museum, which is run by the Frederikssund Municipality with support from the State, opened in 1957.

Willumsen donated his whole collection of his own works, his private “Old Col­lec­tion” and his large archive of photographs, books, letters, diaries, memoranda and notes to the museum.

J.F. Willumsen himself had no close link with Frederikssund, but his father’s family came from the region. Willumsen’s grandfather lived as a child at the inn “Bi-lidt” (“Bide-awhile”), which was located not far from the museum.

As early as the 1920s Willumsen began to work with plans to establish a museum in Copenhagen, and over the next few decades he struggled in vain to realize his plans. A deed of gift from 1943 mentions the idea of locating the museum in Frederiks­sund for the first time. And since the State and the Copenhagen City Council had no wish to build the museum, it was Frederikssund that was given the opportunity.

The 93-year-old Willumsen was not present at the inauguration in April 1957. He never got to see the museum, as he lived in the south of France and was too ill to manage the journey to Denmark.

The Collections

On April 15 1957 The J.F. Willumsen Museum was inaugurated in Frederikssund. The building, which was erected to contain Willumsen’s collection and The Great Relief, was designed by the architect Tyge Hvass, Willumsen himself had put forward a number of proposals for a museum, but they were all too extensive to be practical. J.F. Willumsen had no connection with Frederikssund, nor did his art have any particular connection with the district. The municipality of Frederikssund offered to put up a building, and on this basis Willumsen donated his collection to the town. He had formerly offered it to the Danish State, to the municipality of Copenhagen and to a couple of other towns, but without any result.

Back in 1929 Willumsen had offered his collection of older foreign art, “The Old Collection” to the Danish State. Willumsen had hoped that it could be exhibited in his house in Strandagervej, Hellerup, where he no longer lived. The Ministry of Education rejected his offer and in the following years he continued to work on creating a museum for his collection. In 1935 Axel Jørgensen suggested a museum to be based on Willumsen’s own works. Negotiations were prolonged by the war, and in 1947 The Old Collection was exhibited at Charlottenborg and Willumsen’s works at The Free Exhibition. The same year Willumsen wrote his deed of gift.

Ten years later The J.F. Willumsen Museum opened in Frederikssund as a museum for Willumsen’s art. The Old Collection was in the museum, but stored away in the basement. Willumsen himself did not see the museum – he was living in the South of France and was too old to manage the journey. J.F. Willumsen had donated the entire collection of his own works, his Old Collection and large archive containing photographs, books, letters, diaries, collected through a long life. Few museums have such a comprehensive collection of documents, bearing witness to the work of an artist.

Since the museum’s opening, works by Willumsen have been acquired continuously with the aim of expanding and supplementing the existing collection. For many years Willumsen had dreamt of a museum being created for his works. Already in 1918 he had been very excited by the idea that the clothes wholesaler Chr. T. Levinsen, who owned many of his works, was considering the establishment of a Willumsen museum. The care with which he collected and kept works of art and achivalia over the years indicates that he had a museum in mind.