When a portrait depicts someone famous, their life story will often be known to the observer. It is both interesting and tempting to see this story reflected in the portrait. However, biographical narratives can become so dominant that we forget to look at the work itself.
The British romantic poet Lord Byron was famous and notorious for his political commitment, his uninhibited love life and his eccentric persona. Thorvaldsen portrayed Byron twice. The first portrait was a bust for which Byron sat while in Rome in 1817. Thorvaldsen has portrayed him clad in classical garb and with a reserved facial expression, imbuing the bust with a classic, timeless quality that makes the poet’s own life story recede into the background. Byron himself was not happy with the bust. He did not think it a good likeness, and believed it to be far too self-important: “a bust looks like putting up pretensions to permanency, and smacks of a hankering for public fame”. Even so, it became one of Thorvaldsen’s most famous portraits, and several versions of it were made.
After Byron's early death in 1824, Thorvaldsen was commissioned to do another portrait of him. This time he was asked to do a full statue. Here, Byron has been arranged like an ancient poet-philosopher, but dressed in contemporary garb. The work is replete with symbolism referring to Byron’s life and poetic visions. In one hand he holds a writing implement, while the other grasps his partly autobiographical epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The version shown at the museum is made of plaster, but the marble version was done in marble from Mount Pentelicus near Athens, and the plinth bears an owl, the symbol of the Greek capital of Athens. These choices of material and symbolism accentuate Byron’s fascination with Greece and its struggle for independence from Ottoman rule. As we see him with his head turned to one side, his eyes gazing into the distance with his foot resting on a broken column, we may imagine that he is mourning the loss of the ancient past.
FACT OR FICTION
Not all portraits are the result of direct encounters between artist and model. Some portraits show persons whom the artist never met, instead rendering them on the basis of other depictions. Still others are entirely fictional, based on historical accounts.
The portrait of the mythical Greek poet Homer is an example of a fictional portrait. The epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey have been attributed to Homer ever since antiquity. In fact we do not know who authored the texts, nor when Homer lived – if such a person ever existed. Written accounts tell us that Homer was blind, and over time, a particular idea about his appearance became firmly established: an older man with long hair, a beard and closed or empty eyes.
When Thorvaldsen first arrived in Rome in 1797, his main objective was to hone his professional skills. To this end, his mentor, the Danish painter Nicolai Abildgaard, advised him to copy ancient marble busts in order to thoroughly familiarise himself with the styles of antiquity while also learning how to carve marble. Abildgaard specifically asked for a copy of a famous ancient portrait of Homer. Copying antiquities would prove to be of great importance to Thorvaldsen: his encounter with the portraits of antiquity was instrumental in helping him pick up the classical forms, informing the style which would prove so characteristic of his entire oeuvre.
For some portraits, the artist chooses to depict their subject in the guise of a mythological, biblical or literary character. This approach creates a link between the person portrayed and the role model referenced. The portrait ‘borrows’ certain traits and takes on added authority.
Thorvaldsen used this approach for his statue of the Polish aristocrat and general Wlodzimierz Potocki, who died young in 1812. The sculpture was commissioned as a sepulchral monument by Potocki’s family, who wanted him to be portrayed as a “young, handsome man of heroic appearance, not quite nude, but lightly clad draperies and armed in antique fashion”, as they said in a letter to Thorvaldsen.
Thorvaldsen quite obviously complied with the family’s wishes, looking to famous sculptures of ancient heroes for inspiration. One discernible model from antiquity is a statue of the Greek hero Diomedes, who was a prominent figure in the battle for Troy, just as Potocki was in the war between Poland and Austria in 1809. Thorvaldsen owned a cast of Diomedes’s head, and indeed his version of Potocki’s face seems far closer to the ancient precursor than to the cast of the deceased man’s face that Thorvaldsen received from the family. In the statue, Potocki appears as an idealised image of youthful strength, a timeless alter ego.
The creation of a portrait typically involves close dialogue with a client. The work entails negotiations between the artist’s vision and the patron’s wishes. During these negotiations, basic human vanity almost always rears its head at some point.
In his portraits, Thorvaldsen strived to depict the essence of a human being. He rarely depicted personal, physical flaws in graphic detail. Perhaps this is part of why he was such a popular portrait artist? Even when he depicted signs of age, he did so in a way that conveyed the idea of old age rather than actual physical decay. In Thorvaldsen’s time, the concept of completely realistic renditions was seen as overly constrictive, while the ideal beauty of the portrait was perceived as timeless.
The Scottish noblewoman Mary Ann Montagu asked Thorvaldsen to portray her so her grandchildren could see that their grandmother had not always been ‘so ugly and so old’. The Duchess of Sagan, Wilhelmine Benigna Biron, probably asked to have curly bangs added to the portrait originally done by Thorvaldsen, making it more in line with the fashions of 1818.
Hair can greatly change the overall impression of a face, and it has been an important symbol of beauty and a powerful marker of identity since ancient times. The Roman emperor Lucius Verus was said to have powdered his abundant, curly hair with gold dust, while Thorvaldsen’s patron, the beauty-loving crown prince Ludwig I of Bavaria, would tease up his hair to make it look full and windswept. This habit is also evident from the portraits done by Thorvaldsen.
Based on the same model from 1818, Thorvaldsen created two portraits of the vain Ludwig. The earliest, from 1821, depicts him with his mouth firmly closed. In 1828 Ludwig commissioned another portrait bust of himself along with one depicting one of his mistresses, Marianna Florenzi. Perhaps Ludwig sought to borrow some of her beauty by ordering them as companion pieces? Thorvaldsen chose to mark the defect Ludwig had at his mouth, which made him lisp and spit when speaking. The suggestion is very subtly done, appearing only as a slightly swollen upper lip. In Thorvaldsen’s portraits, small details are important.
The relationship between outward appearance and inner values was widely discussed in Thorvaldsen’s day. It was generally believed that one could read a person’s so-called character by looking at the shape of their head and the dimensions of the skull. Over time, such theories were rejected as unscientific and replaced by a focus on man as a social individual. But appearance still shape our first impressions of each other.
When Thorvaldsen choose to emphasise characteristic features in a portrait, such decisions should be seen in this context. While his busts are full of character, they are not accurate likenesses. Rather, they are interpretations of the character of the person, idealised here in keeping with prevailing notions about what it meant to be a civilised, rounded human being.
In his quest to strike a balance between ideal and reality, Thorvaldsen drew inspiration from ancient Roman portrait busts. In his early portraits we can see how he experimented with different expressions, adapting the Roman Republic’s exaggerated representations of age, character and pathos. This is perhaps most clearly evident in Thorvaldsen’s portrait of the Danish author Tyge Rothe and, later, in his portrait of the Danish count and author A. P. Moltke. In this exhibition they are joined by two of their expressive Roman role models – an unknown Roman man and the important Roman politician and so-called dictator, Sulla.
We rarely get very close to a stranger, let alone have the audacity to study their face and body. Such scrutiny makes us feel vulnerable; it requires a sense of security and trust. But when it comes to painted, drawn, photographed or sculpted portraits we feel bolder about looking – and we’re allowed to.
In her studies of portraiture at Thorvaldsens Museum, Trine Søndergaard borrowed the space traditionally allocated to sculpture, inviting women to step up on the empty plinth and be portrayed. Søndergaard’s work with the models shows how a special bond can arise between artist and sitter.
Søndergaard’s photographic works become more than just revealing portraits of individuals. We can find similar shifts from the specifically personal to the universally human in Thorvaldsen’s portraits too.
You are welcome to step up onto the plinth yourself, experiment with portrait poses and have your picture taken. We invite you to share your pictures on Instagram using the hashtag #thorvaldsenportraits
Trine Søndergaard (b. 1972) is a Danish photographer; she lives and works in Copenhagen. Her internationally acclaimed work is characterised by precision and sensitivity. She challenges and explores the photographic media, its boundaries and nature.
In self-portraits, artists direct the identity-defining power of portraiture towards themselves, showing the world who he or she is or wants to be.
Thorvaldsen’s self-portrait is a complex work, eloquently expressing his own self-understanding and public position. Wearing work clothes and a confident look, he showcases his role as a creative and working artist. Mythological references emphasise the cultic adoration that surrounded the sculptor in his own day. Most obviously, the combination of Thorvaldsen’s wide belt and the hammer in his hand is reminiscent of representations of the Norse god Thor with the hammer Mjolnir. Thorvaldsen was often called ‘Thor’ by his Nordic contemporaries and hailed as something akin to a living god. He himself supposedly said, “One Thor crushes, the other creates”.
Apart from the figure of Thorvaldsen himself, the self-portrait also incorporates a block of marble and an unfinished version of his sculpture of the Goddess of Hope. We are presented with stages of the marble carving process – from block and roughly carved sculpture to the finished sculpture in the form of Thorvaldsen. The self-portrait thus stages the creative process as something that happens directly between the artist and the marble block. But it thereby also leaves out any reference to the large workshop and the many pupils, who assisted Thorvaldsen in the marble carving. Thorvaldsens presents himself as a marble carving artistic genius.
The special exhibition shows the characteristic objects Thorvaldsen used in his portrayal of himself: the hammer, the chisel and his snake ring, a cast of his hand and cut-off locks of hair.
The display case also shows a piece of limestone from the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael’s tomb, which Thorvaldsen gave to his valet, C.F. Wilckens. On the occasion of the centenary of the sculptor’s birth on November 19, 1870, Wilckens handed out pieces of limestone from Thorvaldsen’s grave, implying with this act that Thorvaldsen’s name would enter history on a par with Raphael’s.
Plaster has the ability to accumulate traces of the passage of time in its surface; it absorbs dirt from the air and when touched. Marble, by contrast, retains its original appearance and has a distinctive translucent, skin-like sheen that only this material can evoke.
Marble’s ability to imitate skin is clearly demonstrated in the two versions of Thorvaldsen’s bust of Emperor Napoleon I. One was probably done by Thorvaldsen himself. The other was begun by Thorvaldsen and completed by his assistant, Danish sculptor H.W. Bissen. The two marble busts are almost identical, yet closer inspection makes it clear that they were done by different hands. Whereas the exposed skin of one is completely smooth, the other bust is much rougher in appearance. However, the rough surface does not mean that this bust is further away from completion than the smooth version. On the contrary, the different surfaces testify to the sculptors’ different artistic requirements of the material.
The installation of the Napoleon busts is inspired by the nineteenth century’s sensuous approach to displaying and appreciating marble sculptures. Particularly exquisite pieces were installed on swivel bases which allowed the observer to view them from every angle. When rotated, the busts simultaneously hide and reveal themselves. The lighting and the powerful effects of light and shadow enhance our experience of their surfaces and textures, almost as if we were actually touching the busts.
EXPLORING THE PORTRAIT
Here, you can watch four videos featuring the artists and author who have been exploring the portraits at Thorvaldsens Museum during the past year. The videos give an insight into the thoughts, collaborations and artistic research that have laid the ground for the interventions by Merete Pryds Helle, Lise Harlev, Trine Søndergaard, Nikolaj Recke and Jeannette Ehlers.
Family histories carry great weight. Quite literally so in the case of artist Nikolaj Recke, who grew up with one of his relatives having been hewn from marble. The specific work in question is a bust of German writer Elisabeth von der Recke, on display for eternal admiration and remembrance at Thorvaldsens Museum.
Nikolaj Recke’s family history is known, inscribed and embedded in European cultural history, but to him the bust of Elisabeth awakens an even stronger sense of curiosity about the history of the marble block itself: the portrait of Elisabeth is not just a vessel of family history, but of a wider, more universally human history.
Recke points to the geopolitical consequences of immortalising people in marble. His investigations briefly set aside all consideration of the portrait as a work of art or as a depiction of a particular person. Instead, he calls our attention to mountains that now bear deep scars testifying to our desire for immortality. For millennia, countless tonnes of marble have been taken from the area around Carrara in northern Italy, leaving the mountains severed, carved and hollowed out in our search for ‘white gold’. The material is unique, but the supply is not infinite. One day, the mountains will have disappeared altogether.
What if we could put the marble back – take all the works from Thorvaldsens Museum back to Carrara and re-insert them into the quarries from whence they came? The photographic installation Family Reunion was created on a trip to Carrara undertaken by Recke in the autumn of 2019. Here he explored the marble quarry and reunited a piece of marble from the garden at Thorvaldsen’s honorary residence in Charlottenborg with its place of origin.
Nikolaj Recke (b. 1969) is a Danish artist and a graduate from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Taking a conceptual and personal approach to photography, video and installation art, Recke addresses our conceptions and understandings of materials, places and stories.
Thorvaldsen created portraits to order, but also at his own initiative. This room contains an array of works commissioned by men keen to proclaim their own importance, but they are joined by a portrait of the Polish composer and pianist Maria Szymanowska, a work which Thorvaldsen did as a gesture of friendship and admiration.
Touring throughout Europe, Szymanowska was one of the greatest pianists of her day. She was also a single mother and sole provider for her three children; she had divorced because her husband would not accept that she would not give up her career. Thorvaldsen and Szymanowska met in Rome in the 1820s and became good friends. The bust was a gift from Thorvaldsen to her. Szymanowska dedicated the bust to her children: when she was away on tour, the children could still feel her presence thanks to her portrait.
Thorvaldsen’s Polish pupil Jakub Tatarkiewicz assisted on the execution of the piece. It is difficult to say exactly where Thorvaldsen’s hand ends and Tatarkiewicz’s takes over. However, the bust’s measured, yet focused expression unmistakably reveals it as Thorvaldsen portrait.
In the exhibition room you can hear Szymanowska’s most famous piece, Le murmure – The Murmur.
The bust is quite a strange format. It cuts away most of the body, leaving only the very top perched on a narrow stand. The bust format and the division of man into ‘head’ and ‘body’ is typical of the ancient Romans, who would also attach portraits of named people to idealised bodies. By doing so, portraits could reflect and be inscribed into specific ideas, for example about female virtues.
The husband of the Russian princess Maria Fjodorovna Barjatinskaja commissioned a portrait of her from Thorvaldsen. While the couple were staying in Rome in 1818, Thorvaldsen modelled her bust in preparation for the final statue. The portrait statue and bust differ from each other in several particulars, the hair being the most notable. The face and head too have been depicted in different ways; the statue version carries her head at a coquettish angle, while the bust holds its head proudly erect on a long neck.
Thorvaldsen captured the princess’s features in the bust, while the body of the statue was done later. An obvious question presents itself: does the statue’s body accurately reflect that of the princess? The most likely answer is no. Thorvaldsen obviously drew inspiration from an ancient sculptural type, the so-called ‘Pudicitia’ (meaning purity), a symbol of virtue and female chastity. Thorvaldsen also looked to ancient models when crafting the body of another Russian princess, Jelizaveta Aleksejevna Osterman-Tolstaja. On this occasion he was inspired by a famous statue which was, in Thorvaldsen’s day, believed to depict the Roman Empress Agrippina. In a corresponding fashion, the ancient statue on display in this room fuses a portrait of a Roman woman with a body type generally used in statues of the fertility goddess Ceres.
You are welcome to step up onto the room’s different plateaus and experiment with portrait poses yourself.
When different artists portray the same person, the results can vary greatly; it may even be difficult to tell it is same sitter. This simple fact illustrates an obvious aspect of portraits: the result always depends on the artist’s skill, approach and gaze.
In 1820 – at the tender age of fifteen – an Italian peasant girl, Vittoria Caldoni, was discovered by Thorvaldsen’s close friend, the German diplomat August Kestner. Embodying the era’s prevalent ideal of classic beauty, she soon became the most sought-after model among the painters and sculptors of Rome. The following year, she sat for many of the European artists working in Rome, including Thorvaldsen.
Artists vied to reproduce her grace, but several had to give up in frustration. Even so, more than a hundred portraits of Caldoni are known to exist, the vast majority of them paintings. This room shows three of the eight known portrait busts of her. Each represents a sculptor’s effort to portray the timeless ideal embodied by Caldoni. The diversity of the busts showcases each artist’s own interpretative gaze and individual style.
Thorvaldsen’s portrait differs from the others with its softness and the matt polishing used for the skin and hair alike. The face is exquisitely modelled, but has almost no distinctive features. The overall expression befits a young girl of fifteen, but at the same time it exemplifies Thorvaldsen’s style at its purest.
Clothing is an important element of any portrait. Even in the bust format, touches of clothing and jewellery can help indicate the person’s role and social position. By replacing certain items of clothing with others, a portrait can be ‘repurposed’ to reflect the same person’s different roles in life. The two ancient Roman busts depict two aspects of the same person: as a military officer and as a civilian official in a toga.
In Thorvaldsen’s time, artists discussed whether contemporary or ancient dress was preferable when portraying powerful and influential people. The garb of antiquity signalled timelessness, while contemporary clothes were considered more modern and of greater impact.
In his portrait of Frederik VI, Thorvaldsen has clad the Danish king in a Roman cape and a baldric across his naked chest. The choice of ancient dress imbues the portrait with a timeless and universal air that also helps inscribe the king in the great history of cultural identity. The sculptor H. W. Bissen’s portrait of Frederik VI has a close kinship with Thorvaldsen’s version, but here the trappings of antiquity have been replaced by a contemporary military uniform that anchors the king in his own time.
The nineteenth century had no regular supply of selfies and no video calls from family and friends. A few lucky ones might have a drawing, a painting or even a three-dimensional portrait to help them remember someone they missed.
German art enthusiast Caroline von Humboldt and her spouse, the linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, were close friends of Thorvaldsen. They got to know him during their years of living in Rome, and Thorvaldsen did portrait busts of them both. Reading the couple’s letters offers insight into their relationship with the portrait busts.
For Caroline, the bust of Wilhelm was an object of her tenderest affection, and it served as a substitute for him when he was away. She felt the bust could return her gaze, and she let it ‘take part’ in festive events. Even before Thorvaldsen finished it, she would come to his workshop to look at it when she missed Wilhelm.
Similarly, we find Caroline’s bust appearing in Wilhelm’s letters too. It stood in his study in their family home, but after her death the family thought about packing it away because the memories it evoked were too painful. Looking out of the windows, Wilhelm would have been able to see Caroline’s tomb in the castle gardens. He had chosen her favourite work to adorn her tomb: Thorvaldsen’s Goddess of Hope.
The marble bust of Caroline disappeared during World War II, and is now housed at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Based on a scan of a plaster copy, Thorvaldsen’s Museum commissioned a 3D print of the bust so that Caroline and Wilhelm can stand face to face. Since this is a freshly printed copy and not a historical, original work, visitors are welcome to gently touch the copy. Maybe touching it will evoke other feelings for Caroline’s portrait?
As part of the exhibition, you can listen to a reading of three excerpts of letters from Caroline to Wilhelm. More of their original letters, written in German, can be found digitally in the Thorvaldsens Museum Archive, www.arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk
Thorvaldsen often worked from death masks, created from casts taken of the deceased's face. In such a work process, he had to disregard all signs of death in order to reconstruct a living face. Here we show a collection of portraits commissioned by survivors in memory of deceased children. Letters and inscriptions offer insight into their need to retain their memory of the deceased.
At the age of 15, Auguste Böhmer fell seriously ill and died while nursing her sick mother, author Caroline Schelling. The mother recovered, and the following year she commissioned a monument to her daughter, which was begun by German sculptor C. F. Tieck, but later taken over and completed by Thorvaldsen.
Peter Wilhelm Kolderup Rosenvinge died at the age of 4, and his grieving father was looking for an artist to capture the son’s likeness before his image vanished from memory. Sources report that Thorvaldsen met his father quite by chance and asked him to send a plaster mask of his son’s face. Then “I shall see what I can do”, Thorvaldsen reportedly said.
The English couple Anastasia and Thomson Bonar lost their 7-year-old son, Henry, on a trip to Rome and turned to Thorvaldsen. They specifically stated that they wanted a life-sized bust that looked lifelike.
Funerary portraits of children were common in antiquity. The pedestal carrying portraits of three young children has a touching inscription expressing how much they are missed by those they left behind. The girl Attia in the middle lived for 2 years, 3 months and 26 days. To the left is a little boy, Dorcas, and to the right is a little girl, Scylma. But the people grieving these children are not, in fact, their parents. The inscription refers to the children as “pets”, which tells us that they are enslaved children, ‘living dolls’ kept for the amusement of rich families in ancient Rome.
Standing face to face with one of Thorvaldsen’s portraits, it can be difficult to connect with the person behind it. “Perhaps because it is difficult to look behind the white marble, to see the human being who once sat for this stiffened presence,” Merete Pryds Helle writes about her project Portraits in Words.
In the autumn of 2019, Pryds Helle wrote new biographies for ten selected portraits in the museum’s collection. She delved into various sources of information, met with museum visitors in front of the works and gave art historians the task of digging out some of the more relatable human stories from the archives. Based on this, she wrote life stories that bring us closer to the lives of the sitters and inspire us to rediscover and reinvent faces from the past. These are life stories poised somewhere between fact, fiction and three-dimensional form.
In this exhibition, pink silk bows identify the portrait busts addressed in Pryds Helle’s writings. The texts are compiled in the publication Portraits in Words.
Merete Pryds Helle (b. 1965) is an author based in Copenhagen. She has a degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Near Eastern Archeology from the University of Copenhagen and has lived in Italy. Since her debut as an author in 1990, Merete Pryds Helle has written in different genres and experimented with literary formats and pushed the boundaries of how we perceive literature.
Bertel Thorvaldsen’s portraits depict skin, hair and clothing in such vivid detail that we almost forget that none of it actually is what it depicts. Still, the works do not show us everything, and the grey plaster and white marble cannot replicate aspects such as hair and skin colour. And what about blemished skin? Thinning hair? Transparent clothes?
A sense of inquisitive wonder about such questions formed the starting point of artist Lise Harlev’s explorations of portraiture, prompting her to consider how Thorvaldsen’s choice of material must necessarily edit out certain details of real life in favour of a more idealised but less authentic portrait. Based on extensive research and workshops with professionals within fields such as skin care, hair fashion and textile design, Harlev has translated her wondering into a number of word-based works. Taking on physical form as blocks of acrylic glass, these word pieces are placed in various locations in the exhibition, next to the portraits examined by Harlev.
The word works act as tangible reminiscences of those translations between different materialities we often pretend to be real – even if they do not actually appear in Thorvaldsen’s portraits. With Harlev, we can exclaim: But it isn’t skin, isn’t hair, isn’t clothes. They are not human beings, after all.
Lise Harlev (b. 1973) is a Danish visual artist. She lives and works in Berlin. She is a graduate from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main. Her works are often inspired by public modes of communication such as signs, banners and posters, which she combines with ambiguous and poetic text statements.
IS IT ART?
By the late eighteenth century, the status of portraits began to be questioned: were they in fact art? Most portraits were done as commissions as opposed to ‘free art’ done at the artist’s own behest. At the same time, the ability to reproduce a person’s physical appearance was increasingly perceived as more of a technical discipline. This prompted a critique of the portrait’s position as art, delegating it to a category that was more concerned with profit than artistic merit.
Furthermore, the bust format was obviously handy, enabling the pieces to be moved around, and they could easily be incorporated into the overall interior design of a room, delegating it to decorative status. All this begs the question – then as now: Is it art?
The Dutch-British bankier and interior designer Thomas Hope commissioned a portrait of his brother, Henry Philip Hope, from the English sculptor John Flaxman. Hope specifically wanted it done as a so-called herm, an antique portrait format that had come into fashion in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Unlike the traditional bust, in which a section of the sitter’s chest tapers inwards and is set on a round pedestal, the herm is characterised by its solid, square shape where the head, neck and shoulder blend with the base. In 1807, Hope published an illustrated book on interior design, Household Furniture and Interior Design, where our herm is placed on a mantlepiece on a par with vases and candlesticks – a decorative element like any other of the room’s furnishings. This approach reflects how interior designers and sculptors worked together to create spaces where art and design merged in a kind of immersive installation or Gesamtkunstwerk. Still, as regards the bust’s status as art with a capital ‘A’, the decorative aspect became something of a liability since ‘real’ art could not be reduced to a mere piece of furniture.
In 1803, Hope commissioned Thorvaldsen’s sculpture of the ancient Greek hero Jason. It took Thorvaldsen twenty-five years to finish the sculpture in marble. As ‘compensation’, he did busts of Hope and his family free of charge, thereby nourishing the myth about busts being secondary in nature, works of lower status than, for example Thorvaldsen’s mythological sculptures.
Among Thorvaldsen’s marble busts we find a portrait of Ghazi-ud-Din Haidar. Haidar was ruler of the North Indian state of Ouhd, and in 1818 proclaimed himself king with the support of the British colonial authorities. The work encompasses European and Indian references, but more than anything Thorvaldsen has depicted an Indian man as European.
The portrait was done in Thorvaldsen’s Roman studio in 1824 and sent to North India. Haidar and Thorvaldsen never met, and the portrait was commissioned by the British Governor-general Lord Francis Rawdon-Hastings. Hastings knew Haidar quite well and played an active role in his appointment as king. Haidar’s coronation was a strategic move of great benefit to British trade interests.
In Thorvaldsen’s bust, the trappings of the coronation receive plenty of attention. Haidar wears an Indian sash across his chest, a typical trait of North Indian rulers. He also wears a British ermine robe and a crown identical to the one he received from London for his coronation ceremony.
Thorvaldsen’s portrait shows us the symbolic significance of the bust portrait in relation to the era’s political power games. The white marble, the neoclassical style and very few non-European references give Haidar a dual identity that could serve the interests of the colonial authorities. Portrait art is also very much about power.
When multiple versions of the same work exist, the boundaries between original and copy become blurred. In ancient times, sculptural works were widely copied, and similar practices were perfectly common among sculptors in Thorvaldsen’s time. Of course, popular sculptures were good for sales, but copies also reflected a need for a given work to be incorporated in different contexts.
In 1818, Maria Craufurd, a Scottish noblewoman, commissioned a marble bust of her daughter, Jane, from Thorvaldsen in Rome. She then proceeded to order another twelve plaster copies of it. What were all these copies for? Were they to be distributed among the family's numerous homes, given as gifts, or perhaps placed strategically to attract potential suitors? A dozen identical portrait busts of the same young woman certainly testifies to a mother’s tenacious efforts to position her daughter socially. One can only hope that there was love and care in the gesture, too.
Seeing such a large number of copies of a portrait of someone as relatively unknown as Jane Craufurd is unusual. On the other hand, mass production of portraits of powerful rulers, famous thinkers or admired artists grew increasingly widespread during the period. For example, Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi, ordered 1,200 identical portrait busts of her brother from the French sculptor Antoine-Denis Chaudet. They were to be installed in official buildings all over France.
Individual busts take on their own story depending on where they are placed. The marble bust of Jane was rescued from a fire in the Craufurd family’s London residence and taken to their country house in Scotland, where it was rediscovered by Danish portrait scholar Else Kai Sass. Sass was a curator at Thorvaldsens Museum at the time, and in 1952 the bust was given to the museum as a gift. The damage done by the fire is still visible in the marble. The original plaster model comes from Thorvaldsen’s studio and has been in the museum’s ownership since its opening in 1848.
For this exhibition we have recreated the twelve copies of Jane Craufurd and now display them alongside the original plaster model and the marble version. The copies were created by scanning the marble bust and 3D printing a resin replica based on the scan code. The scanned version was then cast in plaster in the good old-fashioned way.
Visitors are welcomed to touch the twelve copies. Once this exhibition run is complete, they will be sent out into the world for a while to forge new relationships.
Not everyone has the privilege of being immortalised for posterity. By presenting a collection of black hair, artist Jeannette Ehlers reminds us of her black forefathers and foremothers whose faces were not preserved for posterity, but whose genetic traces can still be found in the hair.
In Bertel Thorvaldsen’s day, European colonisation was a source of prosperity and development for the Western world. The labour of enslaved people, including Ehlers’s Afro-Caribbean ancestors, contributed greatly to this affluence. We do not usually find portraits of such people at the museum, but we need not dig deep to find links and connections to them. For example, the salonnière Charlotte Schimmelmann and her spouse, Danish minister of finance Ernst Schimmelmann, played an important role in Thorvaldsen's career. Their wealth and prominent social position rested on the labours of enslaved workers at the family’s plantation business in the Danish West Indies.
Today, descendants of enslaved people can be found all over the world, and DNA tests are often their only means of getting to know about their ancestors. Ehlers’s works point to hair as historically important DNA material, but also to its importance as a marker of identity in Pan-African culture and in Thorvaldsen’s portraits alike. In both cases, the hair is almost as expressive as the face itself – it shapes and identifies us. In her art, Ehlers lets the kind of hair that was never carved in marble enter the museum space. The empty plinth reminds us of the absence of Afro-Caribbean sitters in the museums’ collections of portraits.
Jeannette Ehlers is a Danish artist and graduate from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Her practice spans photography, video, installation art, sculpture and performance. For some years now, Ehlers has created works that delve into various ideas about ethnicity and identity, drawing inspiration from her own Danish/Caribbean background.
In 2014, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, sat for a portrait bust. He did not sit before an artist, but for an array of cameras and 3D scanners that recorded his face down to the tiniest detail. Data from these scans were collected, processed on a computer and sent on to a 3D printer. The project was carried out by an expert team from the Smithsonian Institute and subsequently exhibited as the first-ever 3D printed public portrait of a president.
We have no trouble recognising Obama. No artistic interpretation of his facial features has been carried out here – just a simple, dispassionate digital recording. However, the format has been adapted to the shape of a bust. The head, face and rounded shoulders have been placed on a pedestal, just like Thorvaldsen did. For this bust, Obama’s portrait has been printed in nylon as white as any marble.
A historical counterpart to 3D printing can be found in the so-called life masks and death masks, which are plaster casts made directly from a person’s face. Thorvaldsen often used such casts as starting points and references for his artistic interpretations. We might well ask whether a 3D printed portrait is art? The boundaries between art, crafts and new technologies have always been fluid, and new technological opportunities will always challenge our ideas about the nature of art.
Obama’s face now exists as computer code. When transformed into code, faces become identity markers in a different way than artistic portraits. Today, our faces are ever visible on digital platforms. Because of this, we too potentially exist as codes, meaning that our faces can be recognised, monitored and followed anywhere in the world. Digital portrait codes are not just for the select few, but for all of us. Whether we want it or not.
Standing in front of Thorvaldsen’s studio in Rome on any given morning in the early 1800s, we would have heard the sound of marble being carved and seen customers, friends and craftsmen slipping in and out of the place while Thorvaldsen himself would be strolling across the square on his way to work.
A sculptor’s studio is first and foremost a place of hard manual work involving many different materials. Clay is shaped into models that are then cast in plaster and carved in marble. At the same time, the studio serves as the setting of important negotiations between artist and patrons – and for a famous sculptor like Bertel Thorvaldsen it was also a social, prestigious space that attracted visitors from all over the world. People came to greet the artist, see his art – and be seen.
Bertel Thorvaldsen lived in Rome for more than forty years. During those years, he had several studios. The most important ones were located in the area around Piazza Barberini and were high-ceilinged stables spacious enough to accommodate monumental works such as the monument to Pope Pius VII and the equestrian statues of the Bavarian prince Maximilian I and the Polish freedom fighter Józef Poniatowski. Visitors would also have been able to see preliminary plaster works, known as original models, for many of the sculptor’s other works. In this way, the studio served as a showcase where the artist’s techniques and processes could be explored.
The studio was also where Thorvaldsen met with his sitters to model their faces out of soft clay. Sources in the museum’s archives state that he could decode a person’s facial features in very little time. He then left much of the subsequent process to his pupils and assistants, who were responsible for transferring the clay model to plaster and, later, carving the work out of marble. Delegating parts of the work enabled Thorvaldsen to be very prolific.
When Thorvaldsen left Copenhagen and set out for Rome in 1796, he brought a cast of a face with him. The face was that of Andreas Peter Bernstorff, Denmark’s minister of foreign affairs, and the cast had been taken from a bust of the important statesman that Thorvaldsen had modelled the year before.
The portrait Thorvaldsen had created back home in Copenhagen was Baroque in style, complete with lavish drapery and ornamental insignia. The portrait was intended to convey an impression of power and status, as well as to strengthen Thorvaldsen’s ties with those who wielded political and economic influence. In Rome, Thorvaldsen took out the copy of Bernstorff’s face and used it, at his own initiative, as a reference for a new bust, this time done in a style inspired by classical antiquity. Stripping away all embellishments and illusionist drapery, the artist let Bernstorff emerge as a human being.
This approach would become typical of Thorvaldsen’s portraiture. Not just in terms of style, but also in terms of reusing elements, in this case Bernstorff's face. Taking his starting point from a first model, Thorvaldsen could create different versions, adjusting aspects such as format, size and clothing to make new works adapted to changing contexts and visions.
A portrait might begin with Thorvaldsen drawing a sketch on a piece of paper, studying a drawing someone else sent him – or perhaps looking at a plaster cast of the face of the person to be portrayed. The process might also start with Thorvaldsen meeting his model in the studio and processing his impressions in clay, face to face.
The creation of a classic, three-dimensional portrait begins with making a clay model. An iron framework supports the clay and keeps it from collapsing. Clay shrinks and cracks as it dries, so the artist must create a more durable plaster mould of the piece. First, the clay model is covered in a thin layer of coloured plaster, followed by a thicker layer of plain white plaster. Once the plaster is dry, the mould is cut into two parts and the clay is removed. The original clay model is lost in the process, but has left its imprint in the plaster. The artist is left with a two-part plaster mould. The parts are now reassembled, and the cavity which previously contained the clay model is filled with white plaster. Once the plaster inside the mould has hardened, it is cut free; the new cast now appears just below the coloured layer. This cast is called the original model.
By this stage, the shape of the clay model has been preserved in plaster, and this original model forms the starting point for marble carving, bronze casting or new casting processes in plaster.
The process of carving marble is initiated by a stone worker who carves a rough outline of the desired shape out of of the marble block. The following work is done using progressively finer tools. In order to copy the plaster model as accurately as possible, numerous points on the plaster model are marked in pencil or by means of small nails. These points are then transferred to the marble block by means of a wooden measuring frames fitted with hanging lead weights known as plumb-bobs. As the work progresses, the artist can use a caliper to check that the measuring points on the original model and the marble version are aligned. Once the desired shape has been achieved, the surface of the marble is treated to appear as the artist wishes. Often, this involves adding textures and details which are more nuanced than in the original model. The marble version is the finished work of art, but several copies may be made.