The artist's wife, plainly dressed, sets a table for two in a simply furnished dining room. Sunlight filters through the curtains onto a white tablecloth and daisy-filled vase.

Welcome to the world of 19th-century Danish painters, who turned their attention to capturing the character of the small European nation during a time when its kingdom was overshadowed politically and artistically by its neighbors.

"I think Danish art illustrates all that is good in life," said John L. Loeb Jr., U.S. ambassador to Denmark from 1981 to 1983. "The idea of homes and interiors is something the Danes focused on. They give us a sense of home, privacy and separateness from the world."

Loeb has a sizable private collection of more than 130 works from Denmark, a place that rarely sees its art displayed outside Scandinavia. Thirty-four of his paintings are on display through Dec. 18 at the Vassar College museum that bears his late mother's name, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

"In our prejudices that run to France, Italy, America and Britain, we forget that there's all this great art being produced" in smaller countries, said museum director James Mundy. "Most of us don't necessarily have Denmark on our travel itineraries, and it's not that often that Danish art comes to us."

The exhibit is a capsule of the country's art history in the 1800s, from neoclassicism to naturalism to impressionism. There are portraits, still lifes and landscapes by 27 different artists.

"Artist's Wife Setting the Table" by Carl Holsoe is one of several showing contemplative women in their orderly homes, whether in the working-class countryside or middle-class sections of Copenhagen. As did Holsoe, many painters used their spouses or children as models in scenes of domestic quietude.

It was a contrast to the uncertain mood in Denmark, which had to cede control of Norway to Sweden. The economy declined after Napoleon, a Danish ally, was defeated in 1815. And the country's southern provinces, with one-third of its population, were lost to Prussia in 1864.

"I think that this emphasis on orderly life and tranquil and calm life are curious forms of dealing with the disappointments on the global front," Mundy said.

"Young Girl Writing" by Christen Dalsgaard, for example, features a young servant eagerly drafting a letter in her close but tidy quarters. A flowering plant sits beside an open window looking out on a pond.

"The special beauty and originality of Danish art are still a relatively new taste in this country. . . . One detects in their works an element of national pride in the record of their countryside, peoples and customs," writes Peter Sutton, executive director and CEO of the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Conn., which organized and showed the exhibit earlier this year.

Part of the artists' focus was on religious traditions. Vilhelm Hammershoi, with five works in the exhibit, painted the medieval Church of St. Peter in Copenhagen and its august tower. Vilhelm Kyhn's "Parsonage in Greve" captures the gardens outside the home of a retiring parish minister. And Anna Ancher, a vibrant colorist, depicted three piously dressed women walking to church in her home town of Skagen, a fishing village at the northernmost tip of the Danish peninsula.

Beginning in the 1840s, Skagen became a popular summer gathering place for artists as they escaped the urban settings booming with industrialization. Their charismatic leader was P.S. Kroyer, whose self-portrait is part of the exhibit. His wife, Marie Triepcke, as a young woman sitting in a rowboat surrounded by a willow tree, is the subject of a large canvas by her teacher, Bertha Wegmann.

"I found that no one in a major way was collecting Danish art," said Loeb. "I found a niche here."

Christen Dalsgaard's "Young Girl Writing," from an exhibition of former ambassador John L. Loeb Jr.'s collection of Danish art at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y."Self-Portrait Sitting by His Easel at Skagen Beach," by P.S. Kroyer. Kroyer was the charismatic leader of a number of artists who flocked to Skagen in the summer.Students study paintings from the exhibition of 34 Danish works of art on display through Dec. 18 at Vassar College's Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.