Bertel Thorvaldsen

Thorvaldsen was one of the most famous artists in 19th century Europe. He created works of art for the Pope, Napo­leon and many of the royal families of Europe.

Rudolph Suhrlandt: Portrait of Thorvaldsen, 1810. Detail.
Rudolph Suhrlandt: Portrait of Thorvaldsen, 1810. Detail.

The sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) grew up in Copenhagen in poor circumstances. He was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at a young age and travelled to the cultural centre of the age, Rome, where he carved out a career for himself as an international artist. He returned to the city of his birth as a world-famous superstar who had created works of art for the Pope, Napo­leon and the royal families of Europe.

Thorvaldsen’s sculptures can be found today all over the world in major museums of art such as the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Eremitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. But Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen is the only place where Thorvaldsen’s art is shown in its entirety.

Jason with the Golden Fleece

The sculpture that laid the foundation of Thorvaldsen’s great fame was Jason with the Golden Fleece from 1803. In the eyes of the age, the sculpture marked the beginning of a new period in history when belief in a free humankind created in the light of antiquity was important. As such Thorvaldsen’s Jason stands on the threshold of the nineteenth century, during which the western democracies saw the light of day.

Thorvaldsen’s breakthrough work; Jason with the Golden Fleece, 1803.
Thorvaldsen’s breakthrough work; Jason with the Golden Fleece, 1803.

After the breakthrough with Jason, commissions flooded in for Thorvaldsen. In order to meet the demand he gradually took on many assistants and a whole five studios in Rome, and his works were set up all over Europe.

Thorvaldsen’s sculptures

Thorvaldsen first and foremost took his subjects from the mythology of antiquity: the goddess of beauty, Venus, the cupbearer of the gods, Ganymede, and the god of love, Cupid, are examples of this. In addition Thorvaldsen created tomb monu­ments for among others Pope Pius VII in St. Peter’s in Rome, memo­rials to the inventor of printing, Gutenberg, for the public square in Mainz and the astronomer Copernicus for a central square in Warsaw, just to mention a few. In Denmark too Thorvaldsen was given major commissions. Best known are the sculptures of Christ and the Apostles in the cathedral, the Church of Our Lady, in Copenhagen.

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Mercury about to Kill Argus,1818.
Bertel Thorvaldsen: Mercury about to Kill Argus,1818.

In the nineteenth century art and life were inspired by Roman and Greek antiquity – that is, by ancient and classical art. For that reason the art of the period is also called Neoclassicism, and at an early stage Thorvaldsen was able to give highly convincing artistic expression to this resurgence of the classical ideals in his sculptures.

Thorvaldsen’s life

Thorvaldsen was born in Copenhagen on 19 November 1770. His father had immi­grated from Iceland, and made his living as a carver of ship decorations in wood. His mother was the daughter of a parish clerk near Lemvig in Jutland. The young Bertel was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen at the early age of 11, where he quickly showed unusually great talent.

After he had completed his edu­ca­tion a scholarship enabled him to study further in Italy. His study period in Rome became his working life. The order book filled up, and soon he was one of Europe’s best known artists. He spent a good forty years in Rome – no wonder he celebrated the date of his arrival in the city, 8 March 1797, as his ‘Roman birthday’!

Not until 1838 did Thorvaldsen return to Denmark. After coming home he became the first – and to this day remains the only – person to be granted ‘freedom of the city of Copenhagen’. On 24 March 1844 Bertel Thorvaldsen died 73 years old, struck down by heart failure as he attended the overture of the evening’s perfor­mance at the Royal Danish Theatre. His coffin was placed in a chapel in the Church of Our Lady, and on 6 September 1848 it was transferred to the burial chamber in the courtyard of Thorvaldsens Museum shortly before the museum opened on 18 September 1848, so that the sculptor could rest eternally surrounded by his art.

Thorvaldsen’s descendants

Thorvaldsen never married, but he had two children with Anna Maria Uhden. In 1806 their son Carlo Alberto came into the world, followed in 1813 by a daughter, Elisa. The son died in a drowning accident in 1811, but the daughter lived on and continued the family line. One of Thorvaldsen’s grandsons settled in Sicily, the other emigrated to the USA. The museum still has links with the family.

Albert Küchler: Colonel and Mrs Paulsen, 1838. In 1832, Thorvaldsen’s daughter Elisa married the rather older Colonel Fritz Paulsen. When he was preparing to return to Denmark in 1838, Thorvaldsen commissioned Küchler to paint a portrait of his daughter, son-in-law and the two grandchildren.
Albert Küchler: Colonel and Mrs Paulsen, 1838. In 1832, Thorvaldsen’s daughter Elisa married the rather older Colonel Fritz Paulsen. When he was preparing to return to Denmark in 1838, Thorvaldsen commissioned Küchler to paint a portrait of his daughter, son-in-law and the two grandchildren.

What happened during Thorvaldsen’s life?
What works did he create and when?
Follow his life and works year by year in the chronological overview in the Archives.
See an overview of where Thorvaldsen’s works are set up and exhibited here.