In 1803, at the age of 20, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg went to Copenhagen to study at the Royal Dutch Academy of Fine Arts. After a sojourn in Paris, where he studied with Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), and Rome, where he became part of a group of international artists engaged in the practice of plein air painting, he returned to the Royal Dutch Academy, first as professor and later director. Eckersberg is often referred to as the father of Danish painting for his influence on the generation of young artists who would come to be associated with the Golden Age of Danish painting during the first half of the 19th century.
Much of what we know about Eckersberg's working methods comes from the artist himself. In addition to the many letters he wrote from abroad, he authored two books on perspective and kept extensive personal diaries. During his stay in Rome, Eckersberg wrote of his work in a letter to his friend J. F. Clemens, "I intend to make a collection of the most beautiful of the many picturesque parts of Rome and the surrounding area. I have been working on them throughout the spring. I have already almost half a score of small sketches finished, all of which were completed on the spot after nature. I limit myself especially to architectural things." Painted in 1814, View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome comes out of this experience of painting from direct observation. Although the artist himself refers to such paintings as sketches, the highly finished surface and meticulous brushwork of this painting suggests otherwise. Recent scientific examination has revealed extensive graphite drawing underneath the paint layer. Nevertheless, the painting conveys a feeling of immediacy, freshness, and sense of place typically associated with plein air practice.
Remarkable for its attention to detail and unusual viewpoint, the focus of View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome seems to be on the architectural lines and their articulation of the pictoral space rather than on the famous buildings themselves. Landmarks are difficult to spot—the ancient Roman sewer system nestled beneath the hillsides in the center foreground, the Janus Arch to the left and the San Giorgio Church to the right in the middle ground, and the Campidoglio in the background. The tension created by Eckersberg's interest in linear perspective and nature study, a bridge of sorts between 18th- and 19th-century thought, is eased by the quiet Mediterranean light that bathes the scene.
Eckersberg exhibited this picture in 1828 as a pendant to his Panorama of Rome through Three Arches of the Colosseum (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen). Along with that famous work, View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome is one of his true masterpieces of landscape painting.
The artist [1783-1853]; (his estate sale, Copenhagen, 1854, no. 21); Count F.R. Scheel. (sale, Bruun Rasmussen, Copenhagen, 6 October 1998, no. 2001); private collection; (Bruun Rasmussen, Copenhagen); purchased 10 September 2004 by NGA.
- Fortegnelse over en Samling af Malerier, Tegninger og Kobbere, udstillet af Selskabet Kunstforeningen, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 1828, no. 158.
- C.W. Eckersbergs Malerier, Kunstforeningen, Copenhagen, 1895, no. 87.
- C.W. Eckersberg i Rom 1813-1816, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, 1983, no. 46.
- Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1783-1853, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2003-2004, no. 21, repro.
- Conisbee, Philip. "Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, A View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome." Bulletin / National Gallery of Art, no. 32 (Fall 2004): 20-21, repro.
- Conisbee, Philip, and Franklin Kelly. "Small is Beautiful." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 34 (Spring 2006): 2-17, fig. 3.