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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Bertel Thorvaldsen

Christus, 1838, Bertel Thorvaldsen. The Latter Day Saints (Mormons) have pretty much laid claim to this sculpted image of Christ as a symbol of their faith. They own at least seven copies of various sizes. The original by Thorvaldsen resides in Copenhagen.
If you ever have the chance to pass though Copenhagen, Denmark, you will find it well worth your time to visit the Thorvaldsen Museum. You can't miss it. It's right next door to the Christiansborg Palace. My wife and I spent a day in Copenhagen. I saw the palace, but I totally missed the museum. Of course, I must also admit, at the time I'd never heard of the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. In seeing and studying his work, I wish now I had. If you like mostly nude marble figures (and I do), you'll love the work of Thorvaldsen. The trouble with touring Europe is that there's so many cities to see and so little time to see them. I've come to the conclusion that every major city in Europe deserves at least a week. So far, Paris is the only European city I've spent that much time visiting; and even there, I missed a lot.

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Bertel Thorvaldsen was born in Copenhagen in 1770, to poor parents. His father was a woodcarver and immigrant from Iceland. His mother was the daughter of a parish clerk for the village of Lemvig. The young Bertel entered the Art Academy in Copenhagen at the tender age of 11 with an unusual degree of talent. He trained as a sculptor until 1793. In 1796 he got the opportunity to travel to Rome as the Academy’s scholar for three years of further training. Three years turned into twenty-three. Thorvaldsen stayed in Rome, receiving numerous commissions, to became one of Europe’s best known artists.

Jason and the Golden Fleece, 1803, Bertel Thorvaldsen
While in Rome, Thorvaldsen was mentored by Georg Zoëga, a Danish archeologist and numismatist living in Rome. Zoëga saw to it that the young Thorvaldsen acquired an appreciation of the antique arts. He also studied with another Dane, Asmus Jacob Carstens, whose handling of classic themes became a source of inspiration. Thorvaldsen's first success was the model for a statue of Jason finished in 1801. it was highly praised by Antonio Canova, the most popular sculptor in the city. But the work was slow in selling and as his stipend ran out, Thorvaldsen planned his return to Denmark. In 1803, as he was about to leave Rome, he received the commission to execute the Jason and the Golden Fleece in marble from Thomas Hope, a wealthy English art-patron. From that time on Thorvaldsen's success was assured.

  The apostles lead to Thorvaldsen's masterpiece: a statue of the risen Christ. Thorvaldsen was a master at showing both heavenly and human characteristics. (The gallery is not long enough to allow more than ten apostles to photographed at one time without optical distortion.)
In 1819 Thorvaldsen visited his native Denmark. He was commissioned to make the colossal series of statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles for the rebuilding of Vor Frue Kirke (from 1922 known as the Copenhagen Cathedral) between 1817 and 1829. It had been destroyed in the British bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807. These figures were executed after his return to Rome, and were not completed till 1838, when Thorvaldsen once more returned to Denmark. At that time, he was received as a national a hero, akin to a reigning monarch.

Pope Pius VII, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Clementine Chapel, Vatican
Motifs for Thorvaldsen's works were drawn mostly from Greek mythology, as well as works of classic art and literature. He created portraits of important personalities, as in his statue of Pope Pius VII (above). Thorvaldsen's statue of the Pope Pius is to be found in the Clementine Chapel in the Vatican. He was the only non-Italian artist to ever have been commissioned to produce such a piece. Unfortunately because Thorvaldsen was not Catholic, but protestant, the church did not allow him to sign his work.

Bertel Thorvaldsen was one of Denmark’s best known artists. For more than forty years he lived in Rome where he became one of the most important European representatives of Neo-Classicist sculptural art.
During 1805 Thorvaldsen expanded his workshop by enlisting the help of several assistants. These assistants undertook most of the marble cutting, while the master limited himself to doing preliminary sketches and adding finishing touches. In the spring of 1818 Thorvaldsen fell ill. During his convalescence he was nursed by a Scottish lady, Miss Frances Mackenzie. Thorvaldsen proposed to her, but the engagement was cancelled after a month. Thorvaldsen had fallen in love with another woman: Fanny Caspers. Torn between Mackenzie and Anna Maria Von Uhden the mother of his daughter (from an earlier tryst), Thorvaldsen never succeeded in making Miss Caspers his wife.

Bertel Thorvaldsen is buried in the courtyard of this
museum, under a bed of roses, by his own wish.
In the latter months of 1843, Thorvaldsen was prohibited from working for medical reasons. However, he began to work again in January 1844. His last composition dates from late March--a sketch for a genie in chalk on a blackboard. That evening, Thorvaldsen had dinner with friends, one of whom is said to have referred to the finished museum I mentioned earlier. The sculptor commented, "Now I can die whenever it is time, because my tomb is finished." After the meal he went to the Copenhagen Royal Theatre where he suffered a sudden heart attack. He was seventy-three.

Dying Lion Monument, Lucerne, Bertel Thorvaldsen.


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