Here is a bit of a diversion from the Exhibition on Screen series’ usual practice of hanging their films around blockbuster artist names: this latest is a profile of Wilhelm Hansen, the “Danish collector” of the title, who assembled a mighty private collection of 19th-century French painting – centred on the impressionists – which was eventually donated to the Danish state in the early 1950s. The film actually takes its cue from the Royal Academy’s 2020 exhibition Gauguin and the Impressionists, whose curators are on hand to provide context.
Hansen himself seems a solid if unspectacular figure: a wealthy insurance tycoon whose main biographical drama appears to be getting caught up in a banking collapse, of which he was cleared of criminal involvement but whose financial repercussions forced him to sell a large chunk of his collection. Much of this had been scooped up in Paris during the first world war, when prices for the kind of work he was interested in had slumped.
Hansen did, however, have an excellent eye, acquiring works that spanned the full spectrum of early modern French painting, and its classical roots. His chief love, apparently, was the classic impressionism of Monet, Sisley and Degas, but he also worked backwards to the foundational works of Delacroix, Ingres and Corot and forwards to Cézanne and Gauguin. All these are normally housed in the Hansens’ former country home Ordrupgaard, now preserved and transformed into an art museum.
Compared to an artist biography, there’s a little less ground to cover, so this film can afford a somewhat more languid pace than other Exhibition on Screen offerings; the most interesting material, perhaps, is the passages covering the development of art-dealing in concert with the rise of impressionism, and the history of collecting itself. A quiet, reflective film.