Hitherto unknown portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen

Thorvaldsens Museum buys hitherto unknown portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen painted by the internationally famous Norwegian artist J.C. Dahl. But Dahl is not the sole originator of the painting …


Thorvaldsen, 1841.

A hitherto unknown portrait of Denmark’s most famous artist, Bertel Thorvaldsen, has turned up. And Thorvaldsens Museum has managed to acquire the splendid work in an auction at Bruun Rasmussen Kunstauktioner. The price was 340,000 kroner.

The painting was bought in Dresden in the 1920s by a Danish businessman and has since led a life in obscurity in a private Danish collection. So it is something of a sensation that the forgotten portrait has turned up.

A Colourful History

A sensitive Javanese prince, a mansion in Saxony, a Norwegian express painter and a world-famous Copenhagen citizen on a triumphal tour of Europe. The story behind the painting is well documented and pretty colourful. The portrait is something as unusual as a Norwegian-Indonesian joint venture. It was the work of no fewer than two painters, the Norwegian J.C. Dahl (1788-1857) and the Indonesian Prince Raden Saleh (1811-1880). The painting was created on 17 June 1841 during Thorvaldsen’s stay in the mansion of Maxen outside Dresden in Saxony. The owner of the mansion, Friederike Serre (1800-1872) wanted Prince Raden Saleh to paint a portrait of the famous guest. Thorvaldsen made himself comfortable as a model, but he was close to losing patience with the laborious Javanese. J.C. Dahl, who was known for the speed with which he could create a painting, came to his aid, correcting and finishing the portrait to the satisfaction of all concerned – apart from Raden Saleh, who, understandably enough, was just a little peeved that his older colleague had taken the brushes out of his hand. So the prince started painting a new portrait, which he in time managed to finish on his own.

The Serre family, to whom the mansion of Maxen belonged, made the place well known as a centre that attracted many outstanding European cultural figures. Among the visitors were, for instance, Hans Christian Andersen, Robert and Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt. Thorvaldsen stayed in Maxen in 1841 on his way from Copenhagen to Rome. The trip became a veritable triumphal procession for the then 70-year-old sculptor. Every single major city arranged festivities in his honour; he received numerous different decorations; and when he reached Rome he had had his portrait painted or drawn 17 times.

Portraits and the Idolization of Thorvaldsen

Thorvaldsen was the Danish artist whose likeness was most frequently portrayed before the invention of the photograph, and presumably even before the start of the 20th century. This newly acquired portrait is a very important element in this story of the idolization of a world-famous star. Dahl was in addition Thorvaldsen’s favourite painter, and the museum already possessed 14 landscapes by the Norwegian artist, but no portraits. Dahl is famous as a landscape artist, but he only painted quite a small number of portraits. So this newly discovered painting shows a less familiar side of Dahl’s work. It also documents the friendship and a common sense of artistry between the two important Northern European artists. So the portrait is in many respects a valuable addition to the museum collection – to the benefit and delight of the real owners of the museum – the public.

Thank You

The museum would like to express its thanks to Augustinus Fonden, Ny Carlsbergfondet and Kulturstyrelsen for financial support for the acquisition of this new addition to our collection.

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