Niels Hansen Jacobsen


I remember very clearly the first time I was moved by a work of art.  Copenhagen, 1996, looking at sculptures with my Dad when we suddenly stopped in front of one. I stood holding my dad’s hand, and felt the air just go out of us at the same time. Lots of things awed me during our time in Denmark, but this was (and is) in a class of its own.  This sculpture hits you.  It’s Death and Mother by the sculptor and ceramicist Niels Hansen Jacobsen.

Death and Mother,  1892

Death and Mother, 1892



Facts to begin:

Life: Born 1861 on a farm road in Denmark                                                                                                                                                               Died: 1941, buried on Kirkegaard road

Known for: Large-scale sculptures such as Troll that smells Christian blood and Death and Mother; portrait busts; functional ceramics; funerary monuments

Medium: Stone, bronze, and ceramic sculpture and ceramic pottery

More to Know:

Often, the best material we have for learning about an artist is the artist’s work itself.  In the case of Niels Hansen Jacobsen, this is especially true because at his death, he wished all his papers to be burned.  Thus, the written history of Jacobsen ends outside of a few reviews and mentions of his work in journals and books.  He began his life as an artist by leaving his home and future as a farmer to enroll in the School of Sculpture at the Academy of Art in Copenhagen, and the earliest of his surviving works were created in the late 1880's.

Troll that smells Christian blood   , 1897

Troll that smells Christian blood, 1897

Death and folklore have always been big themes in the world of Danish art, and Jacobsen’s early-sparked interest in symbolism and the human form were the perfect backdrop for bringing these themes to life. While otherworldly, his sculptures meet the viewer with undeniably human sentiment.

Top row:   The giant clamps water       of a stone,    1915;    The freedom of the end of the century,    1896-97;  Time and Man , 1910                                                                                                                                                     Bottom row:  V ölva,    1913;  The Little Mermaid , 1901;  Dryad,  1918

Top row: The giant clamps water of a stone, 1915; The freedom of the end of the century, 1896-97; Time and Man, 1910                                                                                                                                                    Bottom row: Völva, 1913; The Little Mermaid, 1901; Dryad, 1918

Shadow,  1897

Shadow, 1897

Some of Jacobsen's work, like Death and Mother and Shadow, are powerful in their pure, gut-wrenching portrayal of tragedy and darkness; however, another side of his talent embodies one of my favorite aspects of Danish art and culture--that of unconventional happiness and the ability to see all sides of life, including the silver lining. For instance, many of the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales end in death of the hero or heroine--a jarring, end-all of tragedies for most modern American sensibilities.  However, seeing only that means missing out on the key ingredient: love wins out in the end.  The Little Mermaid chooses selflessness, saves her love, and gets an everlasting soul.  The Little Match Girl gets to leave her miserable life and be reunited with her Grandmother, "the only person who truly loved her."  In Jacobsen's quieter works, we get to see this duality of sadness and joy, and acceptance of Nature's inevitabilities.

Vine,   1892

Vine, 1892

While emotionally and artistically complex, Jacobsen’s large-scale sculptural works were hard sells for that reason.  His later career was defined by essentially splitting his skills into three distinct and more financially fruitful outlets: Discovering the art of wheel-thrown ceramics while living in France allowed him to continue to express himself in a more abstract, functional (and more accessible) way, finding symbolism in colors and forms;

Two vases and a bowl, no date

Two vases and a bowl, no date

Carving headstones and plaques channeled his penchant for evoking metaphor and the human figure in the themes of storytelling, life, and death; 

Relief for Bruun Møller Bookstore,   after 1924

Relief for Bruun Møller Bookstore, after 1924

Commissioned portrait busts of family, friends, and public figures showcased his distinct style and expressive skill.

Pastor, dr.     phil. HF Feilberg,       Askov,    1917

Pastor, dr. phil. HF Feilberg, Askov, 1917

As my Dad and I experienced in the moment we first saw Death and the Mother, the emotion behind Jacobsen’s work is visceral.  It reaches out to you with fluidity, sadness, power.  At the same time, intellectual themes and both technical and compositional precision reveal the academic in the artist shining through.  It’s this combination of heart and head that makes his work hit home in a rare way.  Our eyes recognize the physical form at its limit; our souls recognize the pain, internal grasping, the racing of the heart.  These sculptures standing still that somehow still seem to always be in motion show us the very core of our emotions in an inescapably physical way—and it’s painful, and it’s beautiful, and it shows us life in a way that makes us stop in our tracks and lose our breath.

Life Games , 1932-1934

Life Games, 1932-1934

Quote Contemplation: 

I wish that I yet may prosper to create some good Works. Occasionally, an artist creates something of his best right up into old age ... I do not think I have any higher desire than that it may be so for me. See what Skovgaard has accomplished as an old man. For most artists in history, when they have reached an advanced age; more beautiful it must be when - despite age - the ability to accomplish something, create something good, is still alive. It is my wish for the future, but I understand that it’s a big wish, and only for a very few shows true.
— Niels Hansen Jacobsen

Art Challenge!

Make it mean something! Whether realistic, abstract, sculptural, or quick sketch, do your next creation with an ulterior motive in mind.  At the heart of Niels Hansen Jacobsen's work is symbolism--the ability to imbue physical reality with deeper meaning and connect to inner feeling and ideas.  Symbolism can at once make your work more universal, allow others to relate to it on a personal level, and link it to places or cultures with special significance.

Roots Run Deep , 2013, Susan Silverman, Pamela Carter, Kendra Watenpaugh

Roots Run Deep, 2013, Susan Silverman, Pamela Carter, Kendra Watenpaugh

Symbolism can come in layers, like tying a ceramic mural to a past landscape with both visual and metaphorical roots, displaying it in the place the landscape once was, and making the glaze using ash from the trees depicted.

Sources/Learn More:

Art Net: Niels Hansen Jacobsen Ceramics (Auction Site, 2016)

Complete Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen (book, 1874) 

Musée d'Orsay (Museum)

The Spirit of Vitalism: Health, Beauty and Strength in Danish Art, 1890-1940 by Gertrud Hvidberg-Hansen and Gertrud Oelsner (book, 2011)

The Tree in Stone: Niels Hansen Jacobsen's graves and monuments by Lise Buurgaard and Agner Frandsen (book, 1989)

Vejen Kunstmuseum (Museum)                                                                                                                                                                   Niels Hansen Jacobsen Biographical Index -        Niels Hansen Jacobsen Sculpture Hall -