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Bertel Thorvaldsen was born in Copenhagen on 19 November 1770 and died in Copenhagen on 24 March 1844. His funeral took place in the Cathedral Church of Our Lady in 1844, and he was finally buried in the inner courtyard of Thorvaldsens Museum in September 1848.

The early years in Copenhagen        Bertel Thorvaldsen was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen at the early age of 11 in recognition of his unusual talent for drawing. The Academy also provided tuition for artisan apprentices, and for the father, the wood carver Gottskalk Thorvaldsen, who was both an artisan craftsman and artist, it was natural that his son should be trained in the Academy. At the same time, the boy assisted his father to do the carvings on the decorated parts of the ships in the shipyard at what is today called Larsens Plads. In Thorvaldsens relief Cupid Resting from 1789 we can already see the features that were to be at the heart of his sculptural oeuvre: the reting, hesitant and thoughtful qualities in the figure’s expression and the harmonious formal structure. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was an important centre for art in Northern Europe at this time. Thorvaldsen was influenced by the sculptor Johannes Wiedewelt as well as the painter N.A. Abildgaard, both of whom had a close knowledge of the progressive and revolutionary neo-classicism as it was being created in Rome during the second half of the 18th century. The influence of both these men is to be seen in the relief The Apostles Peter and John Healing a Lame Man before the Gate of the Temple, which resulted in Thorvaldsen’s being awarded the Major Gold Medal. In particular Abildgaard became Thorvaldsen’s mentor and champion in the Academy. In addition, he brought Thorvaldsen in to participate in his own works, for instance in the decoration of the Heir Presumptive’s Palace at Amalienborg, where Thorvaldsen worked on the spot to execute his first full-length statues, the muses Terpsichore and Euterpe (1794). Abildgaard ensured that Thorvaldsen was given the possibility of modelling the portrait of the Prime Minister, A.P. Bernstorff and thereby ensured favour in the highest circles in the land. During the years immediately before his departure for Rome, Thorvaldsen made numerous acquaintances in Copenhagen cultural circles. Evidence of this is provided by the many drawn portraits and modelled portrait medallions from these years.

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Thorvaldsen's arrival in Rome                In August 1796, Thorvaldsen was able to embark on the journey made possible by the major travelling bursary ensured him by the award of the Gold Medal. He arrived in Rome on 8 March 1797, a date that he celebrated throughout his life as his “Roman birthday” in recognition of how important the meeting with Rome and the city’s artistic treasures had been to him. From the outset, Thorvaldsen established a close friendship with the artists A.J. Carstens and J.A. Koch, even sharing lodgings with Koch for a time. During these years shortly after the French Revolution, Carstens had great visions of a grand new art reflecting the freedom movements all over Europe. Thorvaldsen’s breakthrough work, the sculpture of Jason and the Golden Fleece (1803) took its motif from a composition by Carstens and is at the same time deeply indebted to the ancient sculptures the Belvedere Apollo and the Lance Bearer. The archaeologist Georg Zoëga was also of importance to Thorvaldsen, especially as he imparted to him a greater knowledge of the history and culture of Classical Antiquity. Jason differs from most of Thorvaldsen’s other sculptures with its emphasis on the will and by the fact that it actively involves the space around it. A work that both continues the outgoing vigour of Jason while at the same time pointing the way forward in Thorvaldsen’s evolution is the relief Briseïs Led away from Achilles by Agamemnon’s Heralds (1803). The figure of Achilles has all the intense power and almost unbearable fury of the so-called Sturm und Drang period, while Briseïs hesitates, deep in thought and introspection, before being led away by the heralds.

Thorvaldsen consolidates his position After this, Thorvaldsen promptly received more commissions, including one from the Russian Countess Irina Vorontsóv for the sculptures of Bacchus, Apollo, Ganymede, Cupid and Psyche and Venus, all executed during the years 1804-07 on a smaller scale than was that of Jason. The figures are portrayed as though enclosed in their own space and deep in thought, features that were long dominant in Thorvaldsen’s sculptures. A contributive factor in this was presumably the preoccupation with spiritual qualities to which Thorvaldsen was inspired by Jacoba Schubart during his frequent visits to the villa of Montenero near Livorno, where Jacoba Schubart lived with her husband, the Danish envoy to Italy, Baron Herman Schubart. The Baron acquired very practical significance for Thorvaldsen, in that through his family relations with the most important circles in Denmark he ensured him contacts with them. The first commission for Denmark was a font for Brahetrolleborg Church, commissioned by the Baron’s sister, Countess Schimmelmann, who was married to the Danish Prime Minister. Although not resident in Denmark, Thorvaldsen was appointed professor in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 1805, and in 1807 came the first of a series of commissions from the Commission for Palace Buildings, which was in charge of the rebuilding of Christiansborg Palace after the fire that had razed it to the ground.

Cupid and Psyche (A 27)


The sculpture Adonis was executed in 1808 and was immediately ordered by Crown Prince Ludwig, the later King of Bavaria. Thorvaldsen became more and more integrated in cultural life in Rome. In 1808 he became a member of the papal S. Luca Academy in Rome and executed the relief A genio Lumen as the piece celebrating his appointment. A temporary culmination in his fame was reached with the execution within quite a short space of time of the 35 metre-long relief of Alexander the Great’s Triumphal Entry into Babylon (1812) for a room in the Palazzo del Quirinale that was being decorated for the expected arrival in Rome of Napoleon I. The plaster version of this relief is still in place. Marble versions were later made for the Villa Carlotta by Lake Como and for Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen.

The "classical" period in            Thorvaldsen's art                                   The period from c. 1810 to c. 1820 is described as the “classical” period in Thorvaldsen’s art because the works from this period are most intensely inspired by Classical Greek art and thus are closest to our concept of the “Classical”: complete harmony and balance and a sculptural idiom marked by great simplicity. Of works from this period, mention can be made of Venus (1813-16), the sepulchral monument for Philipp Bethmann-Hollweg (1814), the reliefs Day and Night (1815, 1816) made in marble in many copies even during Thorvaldsen’s lifetime, Countess Osterman-Tolstoy (1815), The Three Graces (1817-18), Ganymede with Jupiter’s Eagle (1817), The Shepherd Boy (1817), Mercury as the Slayer of the Argus (1817) and Princess Baryatinskaya (1818). A work from this period which is atypical in its idiom is the sculpture The Goddess of Hope (1817), inspired by sculpture of the Archaic period and executed during the years when, for Ludwig I, Thorvaldsen was reconstructing an Archaic group of figures from the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina.

Alexander the Great


Thorvaldsen and the Cathedral Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen                     In July 1819, Thorvaldsen went to Copenhagen to conclude negotiations on works for the new monumental buildings that were being erected after the fires at the end of the 18th century and the English bombardment of the city in 1807. He was commissioned to make the statues of Christ and the Apostles for the Cathedral Church of Our Lady (1821-24).

The Statue of Christ

Public monuments                                    In December 1820, Thorvaldsen was again in Rome. The period from now and until his departure from Rome in 1838 is dominated by commissions from various countries for large monuments that had had in common the fact that those giving the commissions intended them to support, maintain and clearly state a sense of national identity in the individual countries, a nationalism that was observable everywhere in Europe during these years. The earliest of these monuments was the Lion of Lucerne (1819), which was carved in a cliff near Lucerne by Lucas Ahorn. The equestrian statue of the champion of Polish liberty Prince Jozef Poniatowski (1826-27) and the statue of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1822), both to be erected in Warsaw, followed. The statue of Friedrich Schiller was commissioned for Stuttgart (1836) and was executed by W. Matthiä after Thorvaldsen’s sketch. Despite the nationalist source of several of the major monuments, Thorvaldsen made a serious effort to portray the historical figures in a non-national manner and inspired as always by the art of Classical Antiquity. In doing so he came into conflict with the close historical constraints that were an inevitable consequence of the national-historical sympathies of those giving the commissions, and this found clear expression in the negotiations relating to the execution of the equestrian statue of Prince Jozef Poniatowski. However, in several monuments from the 1830s, for instance the equestrian statue of the Elector Maximilian I for Munich (1833-35) and the statue of Johann Gutenberg for Mainz (1833-34), executed by H.W. Bissen after Thorvaldsen’s sketch, historically accurate features made themselves more clearly felt in the dress.                        

Thorvaldsen received a commission doing him great honour when invited to execute a sepulchral monument to Pope Pius VII to be erected in St Peter’s (1823-31). The first sketches for the monument are expressive of intense empathy and an understanding of the Pope’s physiognomy and personality, whereas the finished monument is to some extent felt to be too feeble in relation to the vast space and the mighty, commanding monuments to the Baroque popes.


Portrait busts                                         From his earliest years in Copenhagen to his death, Thorvaldsen made portraits, first as medallions and then numerous portrait busts. The earliest busts in Rome show most clearly how great was the inspiration Thorvaldsen derived from the portrait art of Antiquity. In their monumental format, some busts from 1803-05 are closely linked to the heroic Classicism in Thorvaldsen’s other works from this period. From 1815 there is a sharp rise in the number of portrait busts; they are mainly life-sized and are characterised by a certain common quality which certainly has an idealised presentation as an overall objective, but at the same time they embody precisely observed individual characteristics from bust to bust. There are stories of the ease with which Thorvaldsen modelled a portrait while standing straight in front of his model. On other occasions he had to resort to the portrait likeness in death masks or to painted and drawn exemples.                

The return to Denmark in 1838              After 40 years in Rome, Thorvaldsen left for Copenhagen in 1838 strongly urged by the thought of building a museum in his native city to take the original models for his entire oeuvre and for his extensive collections of contemporary paintings and ancient artifacts. Everything was donated to Copenhagen, and Thorvaldsens Museum was built between 1839 and 1848.

A 232

During his last six years in Copenhagen and at the mansion of Nysø, Thorvaldsen executed a number of smaller works that were characterised by humour and charm. While the striving for the ideal is less emphasised in these works, their expression is livelier and more immediate. In a small number of reliefs, the manner is more that of genre art. Among larger works from these last years, mention can be made of the friezes Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and Christ on the Road to Golgotha (both 1839-40) for the Cathedral Church of Our Lady, and Thorvaldsen’s Self-Portrait Statue Standing by the Goddess of Hope (1839). Thorvaldsen’s last great work was the statue of Hercules (1843) which in its extrovert quality and its self-assurance harks back to the breakthrough work of Jason and the Golden Fleece.       

Thorvaldsen died in Copenhagen on 24 March 1844. His funeral took place in the Cathedral Church of Our Lady in 1844, and he was finally buried in the inner courtyard of Thorvaldsens Museum in September 1848.                                                                        
Family background                     Parents: the sculptor Gottskalk Thorvaldsen and Karen Dagnes (aka Grønlund). Thorvaldsen was unmarried. He had two children with Anna Maria Magnani in Rome, a son Carlo Alberto (1806-11) and Elisa (1813-70).                                    
Training                                   Thorvaldsen started in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Freehand Drawing 1 in October 1781, School of Freehand Drawing 2 in 1782 and the School of Modelling on 2.1.1786. He was awarded the Minor Silver Medal, 2.1.1787; the Major Silver Medal, 30.5.1789; the Minor Gold Medal 15.8.1791; the Major Gold Medal 14.8.1793.                                           
Travels and residence abroad            To Italy on the frigate Thetis 29.8.1796. Arrived Rome 8.3.1797 having travelled via Malta, Palermo and Naples. Remained in Rome 1797-1838, making a small number of visits outside Italy. Several summers spent with Baron Herman Schubart on his estate of Montenero near Livorno between 1804 and 1806. To Naples 1804 and 1818. From Rome 14.7.1819 with visits to Lucerne, Stuttgart, Frankfurt am Main and elsewhere. Arrived Copenhagen 30.10 that same year. From Copenhagen 24.8.1820. In Munich from 14.2. to 14.3.1830. To Laibach December 1832 on the occasion of his daughter Elisa’s wedding. From Rome 5.8.1838 and via Livorno with the frigate Rota to Copenhagen. Arrived 17.9. that year. To Hamburg and Lübeck from 28.6. to 5.7.1839. From Nysø 24.5.1841. Travelled to Rome via Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt am Main, Munich, Lucerne and Genoa, arriving Rome 12.9.1841. From Rome 2.10.1842. Travelled to Copenhagen via Livorno, Marseille, Strasbourg, Mannheim, Mainz, Frankfurt am Main, Kassel, Göttingen, Hannover, Hamburg and Kiel, arriving Copenhagen 24.10.1842.                                          
Awards                                        Copperplate Engraver Bursary for a year, 1793; The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts major travelling scholarship 1796-99: renewed for a further year 25.2.1799 and a further two years 25.11.1799 (1800-02); Fonden ad Usus Publicos 1804.
Distinctions Member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen 1805 and the S. Luca Academy in Rome 1808. In addition, between 1805 and 1843 he became a member or honorary member of a large number of academies of fine arts, societies and associations throughout Europe, Russia and the USA. Citizen of honour in Mainz 1835; the first and so far only citizen of honour in Copenhagen 21.11.1838; in Stuttgart 1841.

Posts and Honorary Positions               Professor in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen 1805; Director of the Academy 1833-44. Professor in the S. Luca Academy in Rome 1812; Vice President in the Academy 1826, President 1827-28.

Self portrait