Eckersberg learned the rudiments of painting as a child from his father, a carpenter and house painter. After serving as an apprentice to two minor artists, Eckersberg enrolled in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1803, aspiring to be a history painter. At the time, the academy in Denmark, like the academy in Paris, held history painting in greater esteem than all other categories of painting, such as landscape or genre. Eckersberg studied under Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, who instilled in him the principles of neoclassical art.
As a result of winning top honors, Eckersberg went to Paris in 1810. There he studied with Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) for a year, painting from life for five or six hours each morning. In Paris he also made drawings and paintings in and around the city and suburbs, observing daily life around him. Continuing to study in Italy from 1813 to 1816, Eckersberg joined colleagues from all over Europe in painting small pictures in the open air.
When Eckersberg returned to Copenhagen in 1816, Denmark was devastated by defeat in the Napoleonic Wars yet experienced a time of national cultural revival, now considered the beginning of the Golden Age of Danish art. Painting from nature, as he learned to do in France and Italy, was Eckersberg's principal legacy to Danish artists. After his election as professor at the Royal Danish Academy in 1818, Eckersberg began to inspire the next generation of painters--Kobke, Lundbye, and others--by encouraging them to make sorties into the countryside around Copenhagen. In the 1830s and 1840s he also conducted classes in painting from the nude model, male and female.
As with many other artists and poets of his time, Eckersberg was fascinated by the discoveries of science, evident in his 1833 Theory of Perspective for Young Painters, where he applied the laws of geometry to the depiction of the natural world. Eckersberg believed the ideal is uncovered through the closest possible attention to nature, stating:
"Therefore let us with assiduity scrutinize Nature's Great Book, let us endeavor to eradicate all kinds of prejudice and seek out the nearest path to the goal--namely to Truth!"