New Horizons (1892-1896)
By means of journeys abroad, exhibitions, exhibition catalogues, periodicals etc., Danish artists gained an excellent impression of the most recent trends in especially French and German art, and many artists and art historians were very much aware of the relationship between Danish art and art abroad. Rohde was one of the artists who were particularly interested in international trends - not only in painting, but also in architecture and design, and this became a regular feature in all his artistic activities. For example, his contribution to establishing the Free Exhibition must be seen in the light of similar ventures in European art: Various artists formed free and independent artists' associations in opposition to the traditional academies of fine art, and many artists joined artists' colonies both to devote themselves to localities offering special motivic qualities and atmospheres, and to establish a common purpose with fellow artists with similar ideas.
In 1889 Rohde visited Paris, which at this time was the leading art centre, but it was especially his later visits that were of crucial importance to his own art and art criticism etc. Between 1891 and 1892, the year following the establishment of the Free Exhibition, Rohde undertook an extended tour of Holland, Belgium, Paris, London and Northern Italy, and this journey is splendidly documented in the form of diary entries sent home to his close friend, the art historian Emil Hannover, and later collected in Diary from a Journey in 1892.
He left with the aim of seeing the most recent art, especially seeking works by van Gogh, for whom he had a boundless admiration - and for whom he arranged the 1893 exhibition. The meeting with older European art (Roman architecture, early Renaissance portraits, Dutch landscape painting from the 17th century, 19th-century landscapes and figure painting etc) was intensified by the experience of standing before a quite new style in contemporary art, where especially French symbolism represented by Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and von Gogh was Rohde's guiding star. Rohde absorbed all these impulses with seismographic sensitivity, and on his return home they formed the basis of his own work, primarily his paintings, but also the later decorative art, where several of these impressions made their mark on his various types of product.
Rohde is primarily linked to the symbolism of the 1890s, where his expressive, silent landscapes with canals and rivers, boats and bridges, buildings and vegetation are reproduced in the light of the dying day. They are sensed landscapes reproduced as personal, atmospheric images inscribed in ornamental lines and in simplified and decorative forms. He found these places in Holland, van Gogh's native country, but on his return to Denmark he found the same motivic qualities in the flat landscapes near Ribe, on the island of Fanø and around Karup. And he found then in canals and harbours, including the Christianshavn area of Copenhagen and his native town of Randers, which perhaps reminded him of the Venetian and Dutch canals. These places contained abstract qualities - flat heaths, dunes, glassy waters, clear skies - and the people living there represented unspoiled ways of life which the symbolists loved and were happy to travel far to experience at close quarters.
In 1895-96, Rohde undertook another epoch-making journey. His objective was Italy, which had otherwise become an "outdated" goal for artists at that time.
Rohde had himself been disinclined to go to Italy, but other artists including Mogens Ballin, Gad F. Clement and Ludvig Find went there, and Rohde visited them during his journey. He originally stuck to Northern Italy, where especially the strict Roman art and the early Renaissance portraits appealed to him. Later, his travels took him to Rome, the Roman campagna, Naples, Paestum, Pompeii etc. These localities were among those beloved of the painters of the Golden Age, and his meeting with them was an artistic revelation for Rohde, who returned repeatedly in the following years. Here it was especially the Classical buildings and decorative art that awakened his interest, but he also made a large number of simple small paintings where, in his portrayal of the magnificent landscapes, the ancient buildings, the view across roofs, bridges etc., he returns to a more naturalistic idiom, which is nevertheless still based on a special stringency and purity in composition, light and colour. The motifs are repeated again and again, but for Rohde it was a conscious ambition that the personally felt artistic expression should take precedence over motivic variation.