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Thorvaldsen [Thorwaldsen], Bertellocked

(b Copenhagen, Nov 13, 1768 or Nov 19, 1770; d Copenhagen, March 24, 1844).
  • Bjarne Jørnæs

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Nessus Abducting Deianira, marble, 1200×1250 mm, modeled in 1814 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, 2004, Accession ID: 2004.174); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Danish sculptor and collector, active in Italy. He spent most of his working life in Rome, where, after the death of Antonio Canova in 1822, he became the foremost Neo-classical sculptor. Although the heroic quality of his early Roman work was later modified by certain naturalistic features, he never abandoned his fundamental, classicizing ideals (see fig.). His pan-European reputation led to commissions from public and private patrons in many countries, and in order to supply these he ran a large and well-organized studio. His collection of contemporary paintings was probably the finest in 19th-century Rome and, together with many of his sculptures, is now housed in the Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen (opened 1848). (Unless otherwise stated, the models and versions of the works mentioned in this entry are there.) In the decades after his death, the taste for Neo-classicism, and thus his reputation, declined, and it was not until the mid-20th century that his art was re-evaluated.

1. Life and work.

(i) To 1819.

Thorvaldsen believed himself to have been born on 19 November 1770 to an Icelandic wood-carver, Gotskálk Thorvaldsen, and to a Jutland parish clerk’s daughter, Karen Dagnes. He has also been identified tentatively with an infant born at the Copenhagen maternity hospital on 13 November 1768, possibly the illegitimate child of a houseowner and a domestic servant. At the age of 11 Bertel entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where he was taught by the sculptor Johannes Wiedewelt, a friend of the Neo-classical theorist Winckelmann, and by the painter Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard. In 1793 Thorvaldsen won the Academy’s gold medal with the relief of the Apostles Peter and John Healing a Lame Man (original plaster, 1793). Two years later he received the Academy’s scholarship for travel to Italy but did not begin his journey until August 1796. In the years before his departure, he earnt his living making decorative wood-carvings, portrait reliefs and portrait busts, including that of Count A. P. Bernstorff (original plaster, 1795), in an elegant Louis XVI style. He also contributed to the decoration of Prince Frederick’s Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen, executing reliefs of the Seasons and the Times of Day (original plasters, 1794) to designs by Abildgaard in a Neo-classical style.

Thorvaldsen arrived in Rome on 8 March 1797 (the day he would later celebrate as his ‘Roman birthday’). As he had a bursary from the Copenhagen Academy, he was obliged to make small figure studies and copies of antique marble busts. The large work designed to demonstrate how he had benefited from his studies in Rome was a statue of Jason with the Golden Fleece, completed in 1803. A marble version (1803–28) was commissioned by the influential British connoisseur Thomas Hope, as a result of which Thorvaldsen was able to afford to stay on in Rome, although his scholarship had expired and he was expected to return to Denmark. The statue, a Neo-classical masterpiece, represented an artistic breakthrough for Thorvaldsen. Executed in a severe style reminiscent of the work of Pheidias, it marked his independence from the more refined hellenizing works of Canova, and contemporary critics made much of this distinction between the Nordic and the Italian. Thorvaldsen deliberately began to use Canova’s characteristic motifs and subject-matter, such as Hebe and the Three Graces, but with more subdued expression and simpler patterns of composition. This can be seen clearly in Thorvaldsen’s Briseis Led away from Achilles by Agamemnon’s Heralds (original plaster, 1787–90; Possagno, Gip. Canoviana), in which Achilles’ fury appears more pent up than in Canova’s treatment of the subject.

The fame of Jason led to many more commissions for marble statues with Classical subjects, among them Bacchus, Apollo, Hebe and Ganymede (all 1804–6). In 1808, the year in which he became a member of the Accademia di S Luca, Rome, Thorvaldsen’s career was further advanced when Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (later Ludwig I) ordered a statue of Adonis (marble, 1808–32; Munich, Neue Pin.). In 1812 Thorvaldsen modelled the colossal stucco relief frieze of Alexander the Great’s Entry into Babylon for the Palazzo del Quirinale (l. 32 m, in situ) in anticipation of Napoleon’s visit to Rome; it was later repeated in marble versions for Conte Giovanni Battista Sommariva’s Villa Carlotta on Lake Como and for Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen. The series of Neo-classical sculptures made before 1819 continued with statues of Venus (1813–16), Hebe (1816), Ganymede (1816), Ganymede with the Eagle of Jupiter (1817), a Shepherd Boy (1817), the Three Graces with Cupid (1817–19) and Mercury (1818). These, like Thorvaldsen’s most popular reliefs, were executed in a number of marble versions in his studio. The reliefs include heroic themes taken from Homer, such as the pendants of the Wrath of Achilles (modelled probably in 1803) and the Embassy of Priam (modelled 1815; marble versions, Woburn Abbey, Beds), and idyllic ones from Anacreon. Among the most widely reproduced were the circular Night and Day (modelled 1815; marble versions, Thorvaldsens Mus. and on loan to London, V&A).

Throughout his career Thorvaldsen was also a prolific portrait sculptor. Abandoning the moderated Rococo style of his early bust of Count Bernstorff, he began to produce a series of marble portraits influenced by Imperial Roman sculpture: these include a bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1817), with shoulders draped in a toga, and a herm bust of Conte Sommariva (1817–18). He also produced many busts of female sitters. However, the two most beautiful and impressive female portraits of the first phase of Thorvaldsen’s Roman career are the marble statues of Countess Osterman-Tolstoy (1815; St Petersburg, Hermitage) and Princess Bariatinskaya (1818), which again show an Imperial Roman inspiration.

(ii) 1819–37.

In 1819 Thorvaldsen was persuaded to return briefly to Denmark. On his way there and back to Rome in December 1820, he travelled through Italy, Germany and Poland, receiving commissions for important monumental works that were to keep his studio busy throughout the 1820s and 1830s. In Copenhagen he was asked to make portrait busts of the royal family and to contribute sculpture to the decoration of C. F. Hansen’s church of Our Lady (now Copenhagen Cathedral). For this latter project he produced John the Baptist Preaching (first in terracotta, later in bronze, 1821–2) for the pediment and statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles (marble, 1821–42) for the interior of the building (all in situ). Thorvaldsen’s religious works unite Neo-classical forms with German Renaissance elements. The figure of Christ, which is regarded as one of the best-known and most affecting religious images of the 19th century, was widely copied and imitated.

The Lion of Lucerne (modelled 1819), carved in the cliff at Lucerne in 1819–21 by Lucas Ahorn (1789–1856), was the first of the commissions for monumental works that Thorvaldsen received from various European cities in these years. The colossal image of a dying lion commemorates the Swiss guards who remained faithful to Louis XVI and were massacred defending the Tuileries Palace against the Paris mob in 1792. For Warsaw he executed two statues now standing on Krakowskie Przedmiście, a bronze statue of Nicolaus Copernicus (original plaster, 1822; erected 1830, damaged during World War II, restored 1950) and a bronze equestrian statue of Jozef Poniatowski (original plaster, 1826–7; cast in bronze 1832, destr. World War II; replica erected 1952). For Munich he made a marble funerary monument to Eugène de Beauharnais (1824–30; St Michael, in situ; plaster sketch model, Rome, Pal. Braschi) and a bronze equestrian statue of Maximilian I wearing 17th-century armour (modelled 1833–5; erected in the Wittelsbacher-Platz, 1839). The marble tomb of Pius VII (1824–31) for St Peter’s, Rome (in situ), is Thorvaldsen’s most prominent and ambitious monument, for which he made numerous drawings and sketch models. Further commemorative monuments are those to Lord Byron (marble, 1829–35; Cambridge, Trinity Coll. Lib.), Johann Gutenberg (bronze, 1833–7; Mainz, Gutenbergplatz) and Friedrich von Schiller (bronze, 1835–9; Stuttgart, Schillerplatz). Among Thorvaldsen’s portrait busts of this period are those, in antique style, of Frederick VI of Denmark (1819–20), Alexander I of Russia (1820), Sir Walter Scott (c. 1832) and Horace Vernet (1832). There is also an extraordinary allegorical bust of Napoleon I (c. 1830), supported on an eagle.

Some of Thorvaldsen’s most successful reliefs also date from the 1820s and 1830s. He was particularly attracted to myths featuring Cupid, as in Cupid and Psyche (1838; Rome, Palazzo Torlonia, destr.; plaster casts, Thorvaldsens Mus.; see also Torlonia). His series of four circular reliefs representing simultaneously the Ages of Man and the Seasons (marble version, 1836; Stuttgart, Württemberg. Landesmus.) are near to being genre scenes. In this respect they are unique in Thorvaldsen’s production, although there is a picturesque genre quality in his statue of a Young Girl Dancing (marble, 1837) in constrast to his earlier classicizing version of the same subject (original plaster, 1817).

(iii) 1838 and after.

After 20 years of incessant activity, Thorvaldsen had a substantial income and a reputation second to no contemporary artist in Europe. In 1838 he decided to return to Denmark to lead a less hectic life and to embark on the establishment of a museum for his art collection (see §3 below). He divided his time between Copenhagen and the country house of Baron and Baroness Stampe at Nysø, near Præstø in South Zealand, where a studio was constructed for him. He sketched out ideas for a proposed monument to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Frankfurt am Main (sketch model, 1839–40), which was not executed, and modelled his own ‘apotheosis’, the self-portrait statue showing him leaning on an unfinished version of his statue of Hope (plaster sketch model, 1839; Nysø), a marble version of which was completed posthumously. This work, in which Thorvaldsen depicted himself in the guise of Thor, god of thunder, is one of the most monumental presentations of an artist of the period.

In 1841–2 Thorvaldsen was once again in Rome, where his studio had remained active, to make models for the last two Apostle statues for the church of Our Lady in Copenhagen. Back in Denmark, shortly before his death he modelled a colossal statue of Hercules (original plaster, 1843). He also made sketch models for statues of Minerva, Nemesis and Aesculapius, and these, along with Hercules, were posthumously cast in bronze (1845–50) and installed at Christiansborg Palace (now in Prins Jørgens Gård).

2. Working methods and technique.

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Bellerophon and Pegasus, pen and brown ink, brown wash, over black chalk or graphite, 168×126 mm, late 18th–early 19th century (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry G. Sperling Fund, 2013, Accession ID: 2013.555); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thorvaldsen’s productivity was, to an enormous extent, due to the working methods and the organization of his studio in Rome. The first idea for a work was often put down on paper in the form of a free sketch, after which a clay bozzetto could be made (see fig.). Some of these bozzetti are preserved in plaster. Then a full-scale model was made in clay, a mould made and from this a model cast in plaster (the ‘original plaster’). With the help of a pointing machine and other mechanical devices, it was then possible to make as many marble copies as there were orders. This last stage was assigned to a staff of professional marble sculptors or to his students, who came from all over the world, such as Pietro Tenerani and Luigi Bienaimé. Thorvaldsen himself assisted on the finishing of the best marbles, bringing out the characteristic matt appearance, which distinguishes his sculptures from Canova’s. (However, these subtleties have, in the work of both artists, often been destroyed by over-zealous cleaning.)

3. Collecting.

Thorvaldsen was an avid collector of antiquities. In addition to casts after antique statues, he regularly bought original items of ancient art, including Greek and Etruscan vases, Etruscan bronzes, glass, gems and terracottas. He also bought Egyptian items at a time when they were still unfashionable and Old Master drawings and paintings, such as the panel of the Virgin and Child now attributed to Lorenzo Monaco. The particular strength of the collection, however, lies in the paintings by Thorvaldsen’s contemporaries, which formed what was probably the most important assembly of modern works in Rome. He owned pictures by the Nazarenes and had paintings, watercolours and drawings by Joseph Anton Koch, Franz Riepenhausen and Peter Cornelius, as well as the Road to Calvary by Wilhelm Schadow and a Virgin and Child by Friedrich Overbeck. Thorvaldsen particularly favoured landscape paintings with fine detail and with clear, sunlit illumination, such as Heinrich Reinhold’s View of St Peter’s from the Gardens of the Villa Doria-Pamphili. This taste is also reflected in works by artists outside the Nazarene group, such as Constantin Hansen’s Paestum, Johan Thomas Lundbye’s A Meadow near Arresø and 13 canvases by the Norwegian J. C. Dahl. Thorvaldsen was also greatly interested in genre painting, and he owned works by Léopold Robert, August Riedel (1799–1883) and Wilhelm Marstrand, whose Evening Scene outside the Walls of Rome depicts the Roman population.

While in Rome in the mid-1830s Thorvaldsen, perhaps influenced by the example of Canova, conceived the idea of establishing a museum in his native city to house his models and original plasters and also his art collection. This was to serve as a lasting memorial to his genius. In 1837 he gave his collection and a large part of his fortune to Copenhagen, and a public subscription was begun to build a suitable museum. The museum, designed by Gottlieb Bindesbøll, was opened in 1848 (for illustration see Bindesbøll family, §1), and, in addition to the artist’s works left by Thorvaldsen himself, it has been augmented by finished marble sculptures acquired at various times. The collection in the former home of the Stampes at Nysø contains works created during the last years of his life. There is also a substantial holding of Thorvaldsen’s work at the Hermitage, St Petersburg.


  • J. M. Thiele: Den danske billedhugger Bertel Thorwaldsen og hans værker, 4 vols (Copenhagen, 1831–50)
  • L. Müller: Thorvaldsens Museum, 5 vols (Copenhagen, 1847–50; Fr. trans., Copenhagen, 1849–51)
  • J. M. Thiele: Thorvaldsens biographi, 4 vols (Copenhagen, 1851–6; Eng. trans., London, 1865)
  • E. Plon: Thorvaldsen: Sa Vie et son oeuvre (Paris, 1867; Eng. trans., London, 1874)
  • C. F. Wilckens: Træk af Thorvaldsens konstner- og omgangsliv [Traces of Thorvaldsen’s artistic and daily life] (Copenhagen, 1874); rev. by D. Helsted and B. Jørnæs as Thorvaldsens sidste år [Thorvaldsen’s last years] (Copenhagen, 1973)
  • J. Lange: Sergel og Thorvaldsen (Copenhagen, 1886)
  • R. Stampe, ed.: Baronesse Stampes erindringer om Thorvaldsen [Baroness Stampe’s recollections of Thorvaldsen] (Copenhagen, 1912)
  • A. Repholtz: Thorvaldsens tegninger [Thorvaldsen’s drawings] (Copenhagen, 1920)
  • T. Oppermann: Thorvaldsen, 3 vols (Copenhagen, 1924–30)
  • J. V. Jensen and A. Marcus: Thorvaldsens portrætbuster (Copenhagen, 1926)
  • E. Moltesen: Thorvaldsens Museum (Copenhagen, 1927); rev. as Bertel Thorvaldsen (Copenhagen, 1929)
  • L. Bobé: Thorvaldsen i kærlighedens aldre [Thorvaldsen in the ages of love] (Copenhagen, 1938)
  • S. Schultz: Da Thorvaldsen kom hjem: Billeder fra hans sidste aar i København og paa Nysø, 1838–1844 [When Thorvaldsen came home: images of his last years in Copenhagen and at Nysø, 1838–44] (Copenhagen, 1938)
  • C. Elling: Thorvaldsen (Copenhagen, 1944)
  • P. O. Rave: Thorvaldsen (Berlin, 1947)
  • R. Zeitler: Klassizismus und Utopia: Interpretationen zu Werken von David, Canova, Carstens, Thorvaldsen, Koch (Stockholm, 1954)
  • E. K. Sass: Thorvaldsens portrætbuster, 3 vols (Copenhagen, 1963–5)
  • J. B. Hartmann: Bertel Thorvaldsen: Scultore danese, romano d’adozione (Rome, 1971)
  • The Age of Neo-classicism (exh. cat., 14th Council of Europe exh.; London, 1972), nos 443–51, 839–44
  • Apollo, 96 (1972) [issue dedicated to Thorvaldsen]
  • Thorvaldsen: Drawings and Bozzetti (exh. cat. by D. Helsted, London, Heim Gal., 1973)
  • D. Helsted, ed.: Thordvaldsens Museum Katalog (Copenhagen, 1975)
  • Bertel Thorvaldsen: Skulpturen, Modelle, Bozzetti, Handzeichnungen, Gemälde aus Thorvaldsens Sammlungen (exh. cat., ed. G. Bott and S. Gohr; Cologne, Ksthalle, 1977)
  • G. Bott and F. Günther, eds: Bertel Thorvaldsen: Untersuchungen zu seinem Werk und zur Kunst seiner Zeit (Cologne, 1977) [with bibliog.]
  • B. Jørnæs and A. S. Urne, eds: The Thorvaldsen Museum (Copenhagen, 1985) [comprehensive museum guide]
  • D. Helsted, E. Henschen and B.Jørnæs: Thorvaldsen (Copenhagen, 1986)
  • Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1770–1844: Scultore danese a Roma (exh. cat., ed. E. Di Maio, B. Jørnæs and S. Susinno; Rome, G.N. A. Mod., 1988–90)
  • Künstlerleben in Rom: Bertel Thorvaldsen, der dänische Bildhauer und seine deutschen Freunde (exh. cat., ed. G. Bott and H. Spielmann; Nuremberg, Ger. Nmus.; Schleswig, Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmus., 1991–2)
  • B. Jørnæs: Billedhuggeren Bertel Thorvaldsens liv og værk (Copenhagen, 1993)