Bertel Thorvaldsen was born in Denmark in the 18th century, spent many years in Italy and didn’t know anything about Greek history or mythology. Yet, he understood the style of the works of classical antiquity better than most and did impressive work in applying these techniques in his own creations.
We’ve picked out some of his works depicting Greek mythology, but also a few stories from his very active life which started in poverty and ended in the palaces of great kings. He worked hard until the last day of his life, gained wealth and fame, was sought after in gatherings of high society – even of kings – but never forgot the city that raised him. His city honored him, and he rewarded his city generously!
(1794, Self Portrait)
Bartholomiew (Bertel) Thorvaldsen
He was born on November 19th 19770 in Copenhagen, Denmark, into a very poor family. From a young age he was following his father to the shipyards and was helping him with carving decorative depictions on the prows. At the age of 12, his father arranged for him to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
The young boy made great progress in little time and whenever he visited his father in the shipyards everyone was impressed by the improvements and fixes he did on the figureheads. His father hoped for his son to stay with him, since a steady job was waiting for him and he was by far the best he had ever seen. However, a professor at the Academy convinced him to at least let his son share his time between art and work. And thus, Bertel continued his studies and kept working with his father.
The young man was very timid, barely talked and smiled rarely. All his thoughts were expressed through sculpting. He had become more cheerful during his heyday, but as he was growing older, he often went back to the blue mood of his youth.
The slow start (1793-1796)
In 1793, he won the gold medal in a contest of his Academy. This was a big deal for him because it also meant a scholarship for a three year educational trip, but he had to wait for a few more years. He received a small subsidy from the Academy during this waiting period and worked hard creating busts and medals and anything that could bring him income. At last in May 1796 the time for his life-changing journey had come. After long quarantine periods at various ports and tough sea storms, he finally arrived in Naples on February of the following year heading to Rome.
(1798, Bacchus and Ariadne)
The glow of Rome (1796-1801)
In Naples and Rome he had the great opportunity of visiting all of the artists’ workshops and met some very important people. One of them was the Danish archeologist Zoega, who showed him around and supported him, even though he doubted the young man’s potential in the beginning. Zoega wrote in 1797: “Our provincial friend, Thorvaldsen, stayed here for a week to visit the sights. He’s a great artist with taste and emotion, but he is completely illiterate, except for matters of sculpting… How can an artist be educated in a proper way if he doesn’t understand a word of French and Italian and if he is totally clueless about history and mythology? I’m not asking, nor am I wishing, for him to learn those things, but it’s necessary for him to have an, at least, slight idea about the names and meanings of the things he sees. The rest he will learn in the company of educated people.” This man was a loyal friend to Thorvaldsen’s until the end of his life.
Here, in Rome, Bertel would find fertile ground for his talent to flourish. He’d stand still and silent before the masterpieces of the Roman era and studied them in detail. But most of all he adored the works and techniques of the Greek era, which he was able to reproduce with remarkable speed and ease. Some of the works he copied were the bust of Homer, the group of Bacchus and Ariadne and Terpsichore.
His only income being the poor allowance of the Academy, the sculptor had a very difficult time. He also had to send back reports about his studies in Italy every six months and was expected to send back one of his works after two years for evaluation. Given the turbulence caused by the French Revolution and the fever that hit him, which would trouble him for the rest of his life, it was very difficult to keep up with his tasks.
The great opportunity (1802-1803)
Luckily, a great opportunity was down the road in these hard years! He managed to be granted three more years from the Academy, but these years passed too and Thorvaldsen was working on his farewell work before leaving his beloved Rome: Jason and the Golden Fleece, in life-size. Unfortunately, it didn’t attract any customers. Bertel destroyed his work and created a second, even bigger Jason. This Jason impressed the audience with the scornful look in his eyes looking over his shoulder as he’s leaving the place holding the much coveted fleece in his hand.
(1802, Jason with the Golden Fleece)
This Jason impressed the art lovers of Rome and Thorvaldsen became renowned overnight. Important people would walk into his workshop, they’d admire his work, but none would buy it. The Academy had no more resources to extend his allowance and the young sculptor was postponing his departure from Rome for as long as he could, until he had sold all his belongings in the end. The day of his departure had arrived and it would all be over if he weren’t saved by… bureaucracy!
Some unexpected delay with his travel documents forced him to postpone his departure for a little longer. A week later, a banker named Thomas Hope (!) visited his workshop and was astounded seeing the mock-up of charming Jason! The banker immediately commissioned a marble copy and Thorvaldsen couldn’t believe his luck.
Despite his enthusiasm, he asked for a quite big fee, 6000 sequins. “It’s too little money. For a work like this you should ask for 8000, at least”, the banker replied. Even though they closed the deal at the initial fee, the commission from the banker grew Thorvaldsen’s fame even more. This time, he stayed in Rome not as a sponsored student anymore, but as a professional (funny trivia: the banker received the sculpture of Jason in 1828!). And when his dream was finally becoming reality, love knocks on his door and Bertel drops his chisel.
(1803, Briseis and Achilles)
Love knocks on the door (1803-1805)
Thorvaldsen was hit by fever, once again, and his good friend, Zoega, offered his hospitality until he’d recover. There, he met the dazzling Roman woman, Anna Maria Magnani, and Thorvaldsen lost his mind over her. Their personalities didn’t match at all, but, still, they dived into a relation that could bring no good. She was trying to move up the social ladder (she was a member of Zoega’s staff) and she didn’t hesitate to marry someone else who could offer a higher social status, while continuing her relationship with Thorvaldsen. Bertel was blinded by passion and could not deal with this abnormal arrangement. And when Anna Maria left Rome and moved to Florence with her husband, Bertel was crushed.
They continued their long-distance relationship and Anna Maria wanted to ensure her future, in any case. She asked her lover for written commitment to support her financially, should her marriage end. Incapable of resisting, Thorvaldsen signed the document and a year later he was asked to keep his promise. He took his lover back, but his health was still poor and he hadn’t worked in months. He soon leaves for Albano where he makes new friends and finds new customers who commissioned works of Greek mythology themes.
In 1804 he received more commissions mainly from Naples and Genova, one of which was the Abduction of Briseis, one of his most famous works. In 1805 he was thought to be the greatest sculptor of his time along with Canova from Italy. In that very active period of his, he sculpted naked Aphrodite and sweet Hebe with great grace and experienced skills.
The glory days (1806-1817)
One of his most famous new friends of that time was Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria. Ludwig I was an art lover, philhellene and father of the first King of Greece, Otto. In 1808, the young prince commissions the work Adonis, “a remarkable sculpture, noble and simple, a true sample of classical Greek art full of emotions”. Those were the words of the Italian Canova, Thorvaldsen’s main rival.
(1808, Adonis, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany)
In the following years, the prince took Thorvaldsen’s advice on the famous Glyptotheke he was assembling in Munich. Ten years later, Ludwig I put Thorvaldsen in charge of the conservation of the Temple of Aphaia in the Greek island of Aigina.
(1810, Cupid revives Psyche)
In 1810, the king of Denmark conferred the order of the Danneborg upon Thorvaldsen and the Italians started calling him “Cavaliere Alberto”. At that period, he created three of his most beautiful works: Cupid revives Psyche, Mercury Brings the Infant Bacchus to Ino and Mars and Cupid.
(1809, Mercury Brings Bacchus to Ino)
(1810, Mars and Cupid)
He then created a magnificent relief depicting the Entry of Alexander the Great into Babylon. This would decorate the Palazzo del Quirinale where the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, would be hosted. His next work was the two Caryatids which had been commissioned for the palace of the king of Poland, but Bertel was very ill and when he finally finished his work, Poland didn’t exist anymore! The works ended up in Christianborg, the palace of Denmark, where they were destroyed in the fire of 1884.
(1822, Alexander the Great’s Entry into Babylon)
The great turbulence (1817-1819)
The last two years of this period were turbulent and not productive, at all. On a trip to Naples, he meets and falls in love with the noblewoman Frances Mackenzie from Scotland. Bertel is 50 years old by now and his fever has brought him down, once more, but their relationship renews him. But when returning to Rome, he had to face the mother of his daughter, Anna Maria. The news about his new relationship and rumors of his upcoming wedding with his new lover had already spread, and Anna Maria was outraged. She threatened to kill him and his daughter and commit suicide, should he marry Frances.
(1817, Ganymedes Eagle)
Thorvaldsen was not good in that kind of conflict resolution and decided to lay low for a while. He didn’t end his relationship with Frances, but soon realized that he loved her more as a friend. Later on, he falls in love with an actress from Vienna named Franzisca. Frances Mackenzie moves to Switzerland, because she’s is too ashamed to return to England: her upcoming wedding with the famous artist had already been announced in the newspapers. A few months later, Thorvaldsen realizes how badly he has treated her and this inner turbulence results to a big decision: He breaks up with actress, he breaks up with Anna Maria and decides to visit his home country after being away for 23 years.
Work, work, work (1819 – 1836)
On his way to Denmark, he spends three months visiting various cities in Switzerland and Germany, where he is given the opportunity to meet kings and officials of Europe and Russia, who commissioned major works. But in Denmark too, he is welcomed with great enthusiasm and more commissions follow, mostly of religious themes and busts of important people of his time. One of the busts depicted Tomas Maitland, and Bertel carved Athena with Truth and Lie on the pedestal. The bust got lost during World War II, but the pedestal relief was found and now stands in the city hall of Zante.
(1819, Minerva – Truth and Lie, city hall of Zante)
He returned to Italy a year later. He had so many new pending commissions that he had to expand his workshop and hire plenty of assistants.
(1830, Lord Byron)
Around 1830, he starts working on the sculpture of Lord Byron, who had died in 1824 in Messolonghi. The work was commissioned by a committee from England who wanted to honor their great poet. Thorvaldsen was deeply moved by the drama Greece was going through and by Lord Byron’s devotion to the Greek cause. Bertel accepted the commission without a second thought. The sculpture was delivered in 1835 and the English patriots donated it to Westminster Abbey. But the clerks refused to have the sculpture of an atheist and immoral (as the Church called him…) poet decorating the Abbey. The work remained stored for a decade, until it was moved to the library of the University of Cambridge. You’ll probably agree that it’s a much better place for Lord Byron’s sculpture…
(1837, Cupid and Hygeia)
Copenhagen’s benefactor (1837 – 1840)
In 1837, Thorvaldsen decided to move back to his home country, but Rome was quarantined when cholera broke out. Knowing that he might not make it out of there alive, Thorvaldsen wrote his will and designated his home city to be the main beneficiary. All of his own works as well as his great art collection of paintings and other works would be given to Copenhagen. The city would have to build a museum carrying his name to house all the works, “…the entrance fee should be fair and is to be used to cover the expenses of the museum. The entrance for any type of artists should be free”, he writes in his will. His daughter would be supported with a sufficient allowance.
After a while, he finally managed to leave Rome and return to his home country where he was welcomed by a huge enthusiastic crowd. Thorvaldsen was the most important person in Denmark, the one who honored his country worldwide. You’d find daily articles about Thorvaldsen in the newspapers following his every move, like it happens with music and movie stars in the media nowadays. He could not work in Copenhagen under these circumstances and often stayed at the quiet area of Nysø. The hosts of the house set-up a workshop for him in the garden and there he created a few more works inspired by classical art, like the magnificent Cupid and Hygieia and Hephaestus (Vulcan). Nowadays, a beautiful small museum is housing some of Thorvaldsen’s works from 1838 until 1844, when he died.
The last trip to Rome (1841-1842)
In 1841, Thorvaldsen took his last trip to his beloved Rome. He also stayed in Germany for a while, invited by the king, where he had the opportunity to see art works in various cities and meet with old friends, like the composer Mendelson who lived in Leipzig at that time. He was welcomed with ceremonies and great joy in every city. Dinners, dances, even theatrical plays, were hosted in his honor. The stay in Germany was so full that he had to rest in Switzerland for a month before going to Italy, where he stayed until October of 1842. Even though he was exhausted and often ill, he continued working there, mostly on religious themes, but also on a new version of his old work The Graces.
(1842, The Graces with Cupid’s Arrow)
The End (1843-1844)
His museum in Copenhagen, the first ever museum of Denmark, was ready when he came back home and it was exactly as he had designed it. A monument was built in the inner yard for his tomb. By now, he was 72 years of age, he had planned his end, but still, he kept on working. In 1843, he created the colossal Hercules and Asclepius for the palace Christiansborg.
He was still holding his chisel and working on the last morning of his life in March 29th 1844. Silently, he passed away that very evening sitting in his seat at the Royal Theatre waiting for the play to begin and now… he peacefully rests surrounded by his own works in his own museum, just like he had planned it…
The great Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen