Niels Laurits Høyen (1798–1870) was the first Danish art historian; he became the leading art critic and the unquestioned authority on the art scene around the mid-19th century. Among his many important posts were that of curator of the King’s national gallery, professor at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen and professor at the University of Copenhagen. Furthermore, he founded various art associations and art societies, with both national and Scandinavian agendas.
In his lectures, he unambiguously called for a leading mission and role for artists in the national question. His political views were in accord with those of National Liberal politicians such as Orla Lehmann and D.G. Monrad, which appears inconsistent with his royally-appointed post as curator for the King’s public art collection. However, prior to the demise of royal autocracy in 1848, Høyen purchased nationally-minded paintings whose political iconography and symbolism was too subtle and complex for the King to recognize them as compromising. After 1848, he primarily purchased paintings done by artists who also followed or shared his stance on national matters. In an epochal and often-cited lecture from 1844, “On the conditions for the development of a Scandinavian national art”, Høyen spoke up for the kinship of the Scandinavian peoples and how their shared history ought to govern the artists’ chosen motifs. In a later lecture (“On national art”, 1863), he had become more nationalistic in his approach, calling for an iconography reaching out for Norwegian and Swedish connections while rooted in a firmly Danish nationality (land, myths and legends). Høyen has been accused of being overly nationalistic in his learnings and wanting to shield his favoured artists (J.Th. Lundbye, P.C. Skovgaard) against foreign trends and styles. Ironically, however, this national agenda was informed by an international outlook on art-historical developments.