Born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1853, Carlsen studied architecture before immigrating to America in 1872. He settled first in Chicago, and worked in the studio of the Danish marine painter Laurits Bernhard Holst (1848-1934). In 1875, the sale of a few of his paintings gave him the funds to spend six months studying in Paris. After a brief stay in New York, Carlsen settled in Boston in 1876 and remained until 1884. He supplemented his income by working as a commercial artist, and exhibited his marine and landscape paintings at the Boston Art Club. By the early 1880s, however, the bulk of his exhibited works were still lifes, which in subject matter and painting technique were inspired by the work of the French eighteenth-century painter Jean Siméon Chardin. Like Chardin, Carlsen chose simple household objects, and explored the emotional aspects of everyday scenes.
In 1884, New York art dealer T. J. Blakeslee contracted to send Carlsen to Paris in exchange for one of the artist’s still lifes per month. The steady income was an attractive incentive for the struggling artist, and he spent the next two years living and working in the French capital. Eventually, he grew tired of this repetitious work and broke the contract he had made with the dealer. Carlsen went back to New York and opened a studio on West 57th Street. He worked there until 1887 when he began a two-year tenure as director of the San Francisco Art Association's school. He resigned this post in 1889, but remained in San Francisco until 1891 even though he found it difficult to sell his works there.
Carlsen again settled in New York in 1891 into an active life in the artistic community where he experienced financial stability for the first time in his life. Because of his preference for the underappreciated genre of still life painting, Carlsen struggled to achieve both public interest and critical support for much of his career. His style was elegant and his technique admirable, later earning him the respect of his peers, scholars, and collectors.
Carlsen’s paintings are in the collections of many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; Dayton Art Institute, Ohio; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri; and the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut.
Edan Milton Hughes, Artists in California: 1786-1940 (Hughes Publishing Co., 1986)
Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Quiet Magic: The Still-Life Paintings of Emil Carlsen (Vance Jordan Fine Art, 1999)