Willumsen had his first encounter with modern French art on his first journey to Paris and southern Europe in 1888. Both were catalysts for a radical change in his art, which had previously been influenced by realism and naturalism. When living in Paris from 1890 to 1894, Willumsen found himself in an artistic melting pot. Artists like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon had a formative influence on the young artist.
In posterity Willumsen has been seen as one of the first real exponents of modern art in Denmark. His works from the 1890s are considered key works in Danish modernism. In this period artists experimented with form and colour in entirely new ways. There was an unprecedented degree of cross-fertilisation between painting, sculpture, arts and crafts, photography and architecture. Artists turned to ancient Egypt and Assyria, which could be studied at Musée du Louvre, as well as woodblock prints from 19th-century Japan, which were on sale at low prices in Europe. Simplification and an emphasis on surface and contour lines came to dominate the painting of symbolist art towards the turn of the century.
Willumsen Founder of a New Exhibition
Willumsen absorbed and developed the expressive forms of modern art in his city scenes, landscapes and portraits. He worked with painting, sculpture, reliefs, ceramics and architecture, as well as combinations between them. Willumsen build his own kiln, and fired his ceramic works himself. From 1897 to 1900 he held the position of artistic director at the Bing & Grøndahl porcelain factory.
In 1890 Willumsen was one of the founders of Den Frie Udstilling (The Free Exhibition) in Copenhagen. He was also the architect of the wooden building that housed it, which now stands opposite Østerport Station. After the turn of the century, Willumsen became more individualistic and indefinable in style. He could never again be directly linked to any major artistic movement. Despite the vast span and scope of his lifework, Willumsen and his role in Danish art has largely been defined in terms of the influence of modern French art and his early works from the 1890s.