Janus was a son of Otto August la Cour (no. 12) and Ane Cathrine la Cour, born on 5 September 1837 on the Thimgaard farming estate. Sigurd Møller wrote, in his book Nyere dansk malerkunst (” Newer Danish Painting” , Copenhagen 1884, p 66): “Strong impressions of nature from this distinctive region of western Jutland were something that stuck in the boy’s mind early on. Hardly ten years old, he was happiest when he could busy himself with pencil and paper. Alone, he walked about and drew imaginary pictures, entire compositions that he planned to make into paintings: an early dewy morning with light gray skies, a moonlit evening at the beach and so on – a number of motifs, several of which were undoubtedly later realised in his actual production of paintings.”
In 1846, Janus was enrolled in a lower secondary school in Aarhus but received no real training in art until he was 13 years old. His drawing instructor was E.L. Hoegh-Guldberg, who also taught him to paint with oils. Janus made careful nature studies, but also indulged in freer compositions or in copying random landscape paintings he came across. In the autumn of 1853, he moved to Copenhagen, as it was already settled at that point that he would seek training as an artist. He became an apprentice of Kiærschou and somewhat later enrolled at the Academy, in whose drawing school he studied under Marstrand. However, he made no significant progress here. He probably never learned to draw good figures, and it is also well known that he almost never used people or animals in his landscape art. On the other hand, Marstrand introduced his apprentice to a first-rate art expert, Professor Høyen, who was interested in the young man’s work and advised him to seek guidance from P.C. Skovgård, an artist who received Janus with great kindness.
Janus exhibited his first painting in 1855, debuting with Strandparti fra Helgenæs (“Beach scene from Helgenæs”). In subsequent years, he studied on the North Sea coast of western Denmark and along the coasts of the Mols and Aarhus regions, bringing home with him impressive paintings, one of which – Tidlig sommermorgen ud over en eng (” Early Summer Morning Out Across a Meadow) – won the Neuhausen Prize in 1861. “With this work, the artist – who had previously displayed a rather one-sided emphasis on mood and scenery – painted energetic form studies and drew great benefit from it” (Sophus Michaëlis in the second edition of the Salmonsen encyclopedia, Volume 5, p 266).
Something that turned out to be of great importance to Janus was when, later that same year, he moved in with the painter P.C. Skovgård, whom Høyen had introduced him to five years earlier and from whose influence Janus benefitted greatly. However, “I can not really be called his student, because I have never painted under his guidance and always went out on my own in the summer” (letter from Janus to Frederik Barfod from 1877). Still, Janus’ studio was next to Skovgård’s, so of course Skovgård was a major influence on his development as a painter. And, through Skovgård, Janus came into closer contact with the most important artists of the day, especially Marstrand and Rump. “The kindness and forbearance of these artists towards me and my work I hold in grateful remembrance,” wrote Janus in some unpublished autobiographical notes. Janus’ first trip abroad was funded by a grant from the Academy Fellowship in 1865. He travelled to Paris, southern France, Genova and then Livorno and Rome. He was gone for a total of two years and spent most of that time at the last location, where he painted a number of southern-themed paintings, including his powerful Fra Pyrenæerne (” From the Pyrenees” ), which he painted almost entirely from memory. Janus also spent the winter of 1865-66 in Rome and the summer of 1866 in Naples and its surroundings, returning home again in the spring of 1867. However, he desired greatly to return to Italy for an extended stay, so he travelled there again in 1868 and painted both during his stay in Rome and after returning to Copenhagen. One of his paintings from this time was his beautiful masterpiece Aften ved Nemisøen (“Evening at Lake Nemi”), one of his most colorful and most poetic works, which was awarded an exhibition medal and purchased by an art association that raffled it off: the winner was C.C. Danneskjold-Samsoe, earl of Gisselfeld.
Later came a series of quite large paintings with motifs from Denmark, Switzerland and Italy. “Around the mid-1870s, they began to show the impact of newer French art: the subject becomes wider without losing its elegance, the colour richer and
more lustrous. The foreign influence, however, was never so strong that it hindered Janus in continuing to stand as a strong
representative of our national landscape art, who, after the death of the master (1875), became the main artist of the Skovgård school: secure in form and honest in his reproduction of nature; calm, controlled and heartfelt in his emotional
expression; and not rarely full of sadness in a deep poetic mood” (Sophus Michaëlis in the Salmonsen encyclopedia).
Janus spent the summer of 1871 in Switzerland and northern Italy; the summer of 1874 in Switzerland, Rome and Naples; and a few months of the summers of 1875 and 1876 in Switzerland. In subsequent years, he made several trips to Sweden, Paris, Switzerland and Italy. He became a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1872 and a foreign member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1883. He moved to Mariendal, a farm outside Aarhus, in 1884 and, in the autumn of 1888, purchased Langballegård farm, which was also located near Aarhus “but in a richer forest area”, and moved there the following year. “He sought solitude in Jutland,” wrote Joakim Skovgaard (in the Kunstbladet art magazine of 1909, p 268), “but it is hardly correct to think that he had over the years become unsociable: rather, he loved his freedom and the countryside and wanted unlimited time in which to work.” Janus himself declared that it had been “for many years a cherished desire to live year- round in the countryside”, and that was why he decided to move away from Copenhagen. In 1888 he became a titular professor. He was made a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog* in 1892, and that same year he was painted by Otto Haslund for the exhibition building. He participated in a few exhibitions abroad: twice in London and once in Vienna, Berlin, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Christiania (now Oslo). At the Academy’s annual celebration on 23 March 1910 – the year after his death – Janus was commemorated in Academy Secretary P. Johansen’s words: “The generation after [Vermehren] included Janus la Cour, the quiet artist, the portrayer of solitary nature, a more rigorous and earnest lover of this than perhaps any other. The sunshine in his Danish landscapes was exclusively pale and cool. Things bright and festive, as portrayed by his master P.C. Skovgaard, appear only rarely and in a weak reflection in his paintings, mostly in his portrayals of southern European countries. For although his essence was so closely related to the natural scenery of Denmark and Jutland, he also, more than any other, had the ability to understand and interpret the natural scenery of other countries: Italy’s classic elegance, the mighty mountains of the Alps. It was not the light he sought, but fine form and strong lines. He worked with a strong melancholy earnestness, with a tightly controlled assiduity that caused him to almost chisel his pictures plastically sharp and firm in shape and mood, a mood that was often reinforced by his particular sense of the monumental in solitude and silence. People have dwelt on the fact that he never used figures in his landscapes – but this demonstrates their lack of understanding of his work. Strong and reticent, deeply in harmony with nature, he preferred to do without people. For him, nature was more impressive and wonderful without them.”
In his Minder om Janus la Cour (“Memories of Janus la Cour”), an article published in the Kunstbladet magazine in 1909, Joakim Skovgård wrote: “Denmark has probably never had a more productive painter than la Cour. It was a delight when he returned from a summer trip with his piles of superb studies, so thorough and so rich in interesting perspectives. One could also feel his satisfaction and justified pride when he would put study after study up on the easel for an admiring observer, showing, for example, the same motif in different presentations and explaining that this one was early morning – he was a morning person and crtitcised painters who only painted evening glows – and this one was an hour later, then the next at noon and then afternoon and evening. Or showing that, for this one, he had been sitting in the same spot; he had simply turned his chair and painted a different view. Or that this painting was the same as the previous one, except the sun had gone behind the clouds, and the next painting was the same again, but this time with a thunderstorm brewing, and him relating how the rain had caught him before he made it home.
“He loved nature and his beloved Helgenæs in all perspectives, and he worked incredibly hard to paint them. He was especially influenced by the sky: he captured an amazing wealth of detail portraying the mood and the colours of these volatile clouds, detail which is lost to most people. The fact that he managed to include all the flowers of the field is more understandable, since they stay as they are for a few days. Of these flowers, the hemlock was one of those most dear to him, with its slender stems gracefully displaying their delicate white clusters along roads and across meadows, adorning our brightly lit time of the year. And also rye before it flowered….It was characteristic of him that he could draw a debarked tree stump with the same love that we others draw a lovely woman. He liked his rooms to display a noble style and neatness. They were reflections of his taste: a little cool, but classy. If he woke up at night somehow convinced that one of his hundreds of studies hung askew on the wall, he felt compelled to get up and fix it before he could go back to sleep.” Janus never married, and died on 13 October 1909. (No children.)