The title of this painting by Frederik Christian Lund says it all really. What we see here is The Dutch fleet under Admiral Opdam passing the Sound on October 29, 1658 during the Swedish war. During the Second Carl Gustaf War (1658-1660), the Swedish forces had occupied the whole of Denmark and laid siege to Copenhagen, the last Danish stronghold. The siege and storming of the city, however, ended up being unsuccessful, which to a great extent owed to the interference of Denmark’s Dutch allies. In the end Denmark – whose very existence had been hanging by a thread – survived the war, although it had to cede its possessions in southern Sweden. The moment of the Dutch fleet breaking through the Swedish defenses just outside Copenhagen is captured here by Lund. So, interestingly, this depiction of a key moment in Danish national history doesn’t feature a single Dane. In fact, we see the whole spectacle from the Swedish perspective with king Charles X Gustaf and the Swedish flag at the heart of the image. The Dutch fleet, by comparison, plays a relatively minor role in the composition’s background.
Lund painted this work in a time during which military reform was hotly debated in Danish politics. The ease with which the Danish defenses had been overrun in 1864 had brought home the message that serious military reforms were necessary to secure the country’s survival in the future. The issue became all the more pressing when the new German Empire was established in 1870. Parliament was heavily divided on the matter. One of the proposed measures caused particularly heated discussions: the fortification of Copenhagen. The two Schleswig Wars had shown that Jutland was hard if not impossible to defend against invading forces and many experts within the military considered it Denmark’s best chance to concentrate its defensive strategy entirely on the capital. There the assembled forces could hold out until help arrived from an allied power. The Liberal Party, which traditionally had a great support base in the provinces, strongly juxtaposed these plans as they presumed the unconditional surrender of these areas when push came to shove. In their eyes, the plans only reflected the arrogance of the well-to-do in the capital vis-à-vis the people living in the rest of the country.
The siege of Copenhagen in 1658–59 formed a logical historical parallel to be used in the discussion on the fortification plans. Seen from this angle it is not surprising that the siege became a popular subject among painters during the 1870s and 1880s. Next to Lund, also Carl Neumann (1880), Kristian Zahrtmann (1888), and Vilhelm Rosenstand (1889) worked with this motif. Thereby it has to be remarked that Lund, Neumann, and Rosenstand were all veterans of the two wars with Prussia.
In other words, the historic siege had become a propaganda tool in the debates on national defense. According to the proponents of fortification, the victory of 1659 proofed the success of depending on a strongly fortified Copenhagen and the help of a foreign ally, a successor to the historic Dutch navy. Lund’s painting on the arrival of the Dutch fleet as such not only depicted a historical event, but can also be seen as an allegory representing a hypothetical situation in the near or further-away future. The Swedes in the painting are then not so much the historical enemy, but stand-ins for the hypothetical enemy, and although this hypothetical enemy in the debates was never mentioned by name it was very clear that it were the Germans who were meant.
Works with the same motif
Carit Etlar ⊕ Gøngehøvdingen (1853)
Carit Etlar ⊕ Dronningens Vagtmester (1855)
Jeanette Stjernström ⊕ Konung Karl X Gustaf (1857)
H. F. Ewald ⊕ Svenskerne paa Kronborg (1867)
Carl Neumann ⊕ The Dutch fleet in the Sound, 1658 (1880)
Frederik Christian Lund ⊕ Scene from the Storming of Copenhagen, 1659 (1887)
Kristian Zahrtmann ⊕ The Student leave to defend Copenhagen in 1658 (1888)
Vilhelm Rosenstand ⊕ The Students march out to defend Copenhagen during the 1658 Siege (1889)