Bertel Thorvaldsen
Biography of Danish Neoclassical Sculptor.

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Jason with the Golden Fleece
(1803) Thorvaldsens Museum.
A fine example of Neoclassical art.

Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844)

The Danish artist Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen (or Thorwaldsen) is one of the most celebrated of all neoclassical sculptors, and the undisputed successor to the mantle of the great Italian artist Antonio Canova (1757-1822). Thorwaldsen approached antique sculpture with the same degree of respect as Canova, but with less originality. In later years, like the English sculptor John Flaxman, he tried to adapt his style to the demands of religious imagery. Born in Denmark, he spent most of his artistic life working in Rome, employing up to 40 assistants in his workshop. (Note: for details of Thorvaldsen's contemporaries, see: Neoclassical artists.)

Famous works of Neoclassical sculpture carved by Thorvaldsen, include: Jason with the Golden Fleece (1803, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen); Alexander the Great Entering Babylon (1812, Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome); Christ and the Twelve Apostles (1819-38, Vor Frue Kirke, Copenhagen); and Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle (1817, Thorvaldsens Museum). His works can be seen in the best art museums and sculpture gardens around the world.

Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle
(1817) Thorvaldsens Museum

SCULPTURE (c.1600-1750)
Baroque/Rococo Sculptors
Rococo Art (c.1700-1750)
Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791)
Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823)
Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)
Auguste Preault (1809-79)
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75)

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development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

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Early Life

Thorvaldsen was born in Copenhagen in 1770. His father came from Iceland, but settled in Denmark to work as a wood-carver. There are some Icelanders who claim that Thorvaldsen was born in Iceland and could claim descent from Snorri Thorfinnsson, the first European born in America. Thorvaldsen studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Art and won several awards during his studies, including the prestigious Gold Medal. As part of this award he was granted a stipend to study in Rome, where he arrived in 1797.

Rome and Commissions

Many of Thorvaldsen’s most characteristic sculptures are new interpretations of figures or themes that were popular in classical antiquity. An excellent example of his classicism was his first success, Jason with the Golden Fleece (1803, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen), a marble sculpture of the mythological figure. His figures were more based on classical principles than studied from nature. A central feature of neoclassical sculpture is the contour or outline of a sculpture. The 'spiritual' form of the art is created through clarity of the contour. The success of this statue ensured countless commissions which meant he did not have a chance to leave Italy for 16 years.

Alexander the Great Entering Babylon

Other important works from this period include his frieze Alexander the Great Entering Babylon (1812, Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome), which made his reputation. Modelled in only three months, in anticipation of the arrival of Napolean, this statue was based on classical hero forms. His marble statue of Hebe (1806, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen), was based on the ancient story of Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera. Hebe is the goddess of Youth and Spring, and offers the cup of immortality. She could well have belonged in a Roman temple.

Note About Art Appreciation
To learn how to judge plastic artists like the Danish Neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Christ and the Twelve Apostles

In 1819 Thorvaldsen returned home to Denmark and was commissioned to create a large scale series of statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles for Copenhagen Cathedral (the Vor Frue Kirke), along with an Angel of Baptism, several reliefs, and a pediment over the entrance in terracotta called Preaching of John the Baptist. He took notes of the commission but returned back to Rome to start the execution. He did not return to Copenhagen until the statues were completed in 1838. An American writer referred to Thorvaldsen's Christ figure as "the most perfect statue of Christ in the world". In later years the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints commissioned a replica for Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore also houses a full-scale copy of the statue. Thorvaldsen was often compared to the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, but where Canova was more dramatic in the manner of Bernini, Thorvaldsen's work was more reserved in line with classical Greek sculpture. The poses and expressions of his figures are more formal and stiff than those of Canova's. And where Canova treats the surface of his statues with sensitivity, Thorvaldsen is more logical and precise. Thorvaldsen was aware that his style was not 'modern' for his day, but he was not embarrassed. When he was arrived in Rome, in 1797 he said "I was born on the 8th of March, 1797, before then I did not exist." Rome was his new home, where he was able to rapidly copy and absorb the spirit of ancient statues. His main admiration lay in late Hellenistic or Roman copies of Greek art.

Copenhagen treated Thorvaldsen as a celebrity and an art museum was built in his honour in 1839, itself a beautiful example of neo-antique architecture. The courtyard contains the tomb of Thorvaldsen, where he is buried under a bed of roses by his own special request.


Other Sculptures

Other important works by Thorvaldsen include:

The Lion of Lucerne (1819-21, Lucerne)
Commissioned to commemorate 600 Swiss Guards who died defending the Tuileries during the French Revolution. This is a stone statue of a dying lion, lying across broken symbols of the French monarchy. Thorvaldsen created the design for the lion, but it was a local sculptor, Lukas Ahorn, who carved the rock.

Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle (1817, Thorvaldsens Museum)
Marble statue of a figure offering a drinking cup to an Eagle. Designed from a single viewpoint, the sculpture is basically held together by its one-dimensional line view. This gives the sculpture an almost relief-like appearance and shows Thorvaldsen's supreme mastery of line, which he had practiced to perfection in numerous bas-reliefs of the time.

Hylas Abducted by the Nymphs (1831, Thorvaldsens Museum)
Marble statue of Mercury Preparing to Kill Argus (1818, Thorvaldsens Museum); Marble Monument of Pius VIII (1853-66, St Peters, Rome); Marble statue of Shepherd (1817-26, City Art Gallery, Manchester); Statue of Byron (1831, Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge); and The Three Graces with Cupid (1817-18, Thorvaldsens Museum).

He also produced two historical statues for Poland, including an equestrian statue of Prince Jozef Poniatowski which now stands before the Presidential Palace; and a seated Nicolaus Copernicus, located before the Polish Academy of Sciences building—both located on Warsaw's Krakowskie Przedmiescie.

Additionally a bronze copy of Thorvaldsen's Self-Portrait can be found in Central Park, New York, near the East 97 Street entrance.


Bertel Thorvaldsen died in 1844. One of the greatest sculptors from Denmark, and the first Danish artist to attain worldwide success, he was prominent in intellectual and artistic circles and influenced many emerging artists from the United States and Europe. He bequeathed most of his fortune to his own museum and left instructions for all his works of art to be donated to the museum. All the models for his sculpture and a large collection of other contemporary artists works were included in the endowment.

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