To what extent was Thorvaldsen actually involved in producing the works credited to him? Discussion of this question grew heated in his own day, and has remained so ever since. It seems to have mattered a great deal to what degree one could prove that Thorvaldsen either was not involved at every stage in the production of a given artwork; that he was so involved; or that his involvement was only truly significant at the initial, conception stage. The present article examines Thorvaldsen’s workshop practice and its reception, with a glance at the superstars of our own day.
This article is adapted from a presentation given at the conference Thorvaldsen. Derfor! held on March 6-7, 2014, in the Ceremonial Hall of the Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, and which focused on Thorvaldsen’s enduring significance today.
What does it take for an artwork to be ascribed to a certain artist? Is a work of sculpture an “authentic Thorvaldsen” only if Thorvaldsen himself undertook every stage of the work’s production? Would it count as a truly authentic piece only if this were the case—and if it were not, if the sculptor himself had only produced the work’s first sketch, after which all of the subsequent work, from clay to marble, were done by assistants with specialties in modeling, plaster casting, rough carving, and fine chiseling, would it then count as a less fine, as a less “authentic” Thorvaldsen?
These questions might seem foolishly polemical today, in the wake of our experience with Marcel Duchamp’s (1887-1968) readymades, as with Donald Judd’s (1928-1994) industrially prefabricated boxes. But in Thorvaldsen’s day, they were highly relevant questions—no doubt especially after 1820, when the Thorvaldsen business truly boomed, and his workshop could barely keep up with the flood of commissions heading their way. And these questions can indeed still seem relevant today, when we visit Thorvaldsens Museum and see the widely divergent versions of his works there: his “bozzetti” (i.e., maquettes, or small sculptural sketches modeled in clay), the original models (the first plaster casts made from the large 1:1 clay models), and the marble versions that issued from Thorvaldsen’s workshop during his lifetime, as compared with the posthumous marble versions carved by later Danish sculptors in an effort to fill the “marble gaps” in Thorvaldsens Museum’s collection.
Given enough time, visitors to the Museum will discover major differences among works of these kinds. Indeed: in certain cases, they will unearth drastic distortions of meaning in the process of translation from idea to model to completed marble version. For present purposes, such differences and errors can be used to shed light on Thorvaldsen’s workshop practice, and to aid our understanding of him as an artist.
Discussion of the extent to which Thorvaldsen was actually involved in the production of the artworks attributed to him often grew heated in his own day, and has remained so ever since. It seems to have mattered a great deal to what degree one could prove that Thorvaldsen either was not involved at every stage in the production of a given artwork; that he was so involved; or that his involvement was only truly significant at the initial, conception stage.
The idolization of an artist’s work as “original” only insofar as it was produced by the artist alone, untouched by others’ hands, is a relatively new phenomenon—compared with, for example, the workshop practices of medieval and Renaissance artists, with Michelangelo (1475-1564) as an important, iconic exception.
Although a cult of the unique artist was clearly on the rise in Thorvladsen’s day, it only caught on seriously with the emergence of the later modernists, such as Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), or such sculptors as Adolf von Hildebrand (1847-1921), who insisted on carving his own works himself.
However, this cult of originality was partly or fully dissolved again in the twentieth century, or at least subjected to challenges with the emergence of readymades, conceptual art, minimalism, etc.
As early as the mid-1700s, we see an increased focus on the process and production of sculpture, i.e. on the initial idea, first sketches, and models for a work, at the expense of attention to the subsequent execution of the sculpture in its completed form.
At the same time, one notices in the art criticism of Thorvaldsen’s day that it seemed to border on provocation and indifference, for some, that “the master” barely needed to participate in the production of a work attributed to him, apart from generating the idea for it and producing a model. This change in focus is clearly reflected in Friederike Brun’s dictum to the effect that an artwork is born in clay, dies in plaster, and is resurrected in marble. Or as she formulated it elsewhere: Thorvaldsen is an artist “who, unbeknownst to himself, struggles with the ideal, and strives for a goal set so high for his spirit that he could distinctly feel how the work of the hands was in fact the least of it!”
Plainly fundamental to this dispute is the fact that the very question of originality, and the idolization of works deriving directly from the artist’s hand, itself derives originally from the world of painting and drawing, whose techniques differ completely different from those of sculpture. In the world of painting and drawing, the dawn of early modernity brought with it a new emphasis on the capacity to show—to prove—a special and direct relationship between the artist-genius and his work. Sculpture was thus caught up, in a sense, in a dogma of originality that is fundamentally inconsistent with its techniques and production process. Arguably, sculpture today—with its focus on the idea behind the sculpted object—seems a much more modern art form than painting, as indeed it already was in Thorvaldsen’s day as well.
Edward Matthew Ward: Caricature of Thorvaldsen in his workshop, D1862, 1838.
Thorvaldsen’s workshop practice has been frequently described. Common to these descriptions is the observation that, for Thorvaldsen, the most essential phases of sculptural production were the design phase and the modeling of the work.
After coming up with the idea for an artwork, Thorvaldsen would draw sketches and fashion a maquette, or small clay model—ca. 30 cm in height. He would then produce a larger 1:1 clay model of the work, or have one of his best students or assistants do so; the clay model was then sent to a plaster specialist for plaster casting. The resulting “original model” was then, on occasion, subject to correction by Thorvaldsen himself.
The work’s rough carving in marble, i.e. its transfer from the plaster model to marble, was executed by marble carvers and/or sculptors-in-training; the finer chiseling was done by the best of the sculptors in Thorvaldsen’s employ. The latter were skilled enough to be capable of producing artworks under their own names, when not working for Thorvaldsen.
The closer to the final result, the more specialized were the skills needed. Some of Thorvaldsen’s assistants, for example, were especially talented at carving or chiseling hair or fur; others were especially gifted at, e.g., fine carving of faces or drapery.
As a rule, Thorvaldsen was present at regular intervals throughout this entire process. He was of course absent during his travels (including his long stay in Denmark), during which periods his best assistants took his place as leader. In general, however, Thorvaldsen would regularly correct the work of his assistants.
In a letter dated 15.6.1822 to the historian and theologian Jens Møller, Thorvaldsen’s good friend P. O. Brøndsted, an archaeologist, made the following remark about Thorvaldsen’s practice of correcting his assistants’ work:
“Thorvaldsen now has so many models of his manifold works piled up in various places that if gathered in one place, these workshops and their ‘residents’ would form their very own little metropolis of art. Each morning, his first stop is to inspect the apprentices’ work, of which he recently said: ‘Just about every morning I make the rounds, like a doctor, and look after my patients—but most of all I am occupied with surgical operations.’”
Such eyewitness accounts of Thorvaldsen inspecting his apprentices’ work are registered in numerous places. Letters often mention, in a variety of formulations, that certain works await the master’s “polishing,” “final corrections,” or “additions that can only come from the master’s chisel.”
Unfortunately, although Thorvaldsen’s workshop accounts do exhaustively trace the progress, from 1819 onward, of the many works produced in Thorvaldsen’s name through the hands of his many assistants, they do not specify how much time the master sculptor spent on them himself.
In the 23.10.1819 issue of the weekly magazine Nyeste Skilderie af Kjøbenhavn [The Latest Portrait of Copenhagen], we find an important and highly informative description of Thorvaldsen’s workshop, which once again emphasizes the difference between the design and modeling phase, on the one hand, and the more “mechanical” part of sculptural production, on the other:
“In [Thorvaldsen’s] workshop there are fifteen people at work on a daily basis. [Thorvaldsen] devotes himself entirely to modeling; the marble carving is left to the actual stoneworkers. The great mass who are unfamiliar with how sculpture actually works imagine that it actually consists in the carving of marble; but that is far from true. Modeling is the main thing; carving in stone is a wholly mechanical art. Even those who are superbly capable of carving a figure in marble are at times unable to model the slightest thing.”
”[It would] be appropriate to alert the Professor to the following: namely, that inasmuch it is not the materials, but the labor of the artist, that makes an artwork costly, it follows that if one wishes to economize, one would need to know how to reduce the artist’s labor by permitting him to use others for the mechanical work. —Consequently, [the] artist here in Rome, where there is no lack of good workers, usually models the figure in full size and as fully executed as possible, so that the execution in marble can for the most part be entirely mechanical—”
The art historian Leopold Cicognara, a contemporary of Thorvaldsen’s, claimed that it was the sculptor Antonio Canova, Thorvaldsen’s Italian counterpart, who perfected the various sculptural techniques that were then in use. More specifically, Canova made it his standard procedure to produce a clay model in large size, which would subsequently be cast in plaster.
From then on, this plaster model served as the firm (and dimensional) basis for all subsequent reproductions, irrespective of whether the final material of this artwork was to be marble or bronze. This method allowed for more accurate correspondence between a work’s clay, plaster, and marble versions, saving time and thereby money as well. What is more, this method minimized the likelihood of error—as it required, in principle, nothing more than the making of a 1:1 copy, a task that could reliably be delegated to specialists in the workshop’s employ, either until the point where the master would take over to put on the finishing touches—or all the way to completion of the final work.
Now, Thorvaldsen did put the finishing touches on his own works—at least according to some sources; according to other sources, he did not. The truth, as usual, is no doubt found somewhere in between.
This is the point where disagreement about Thorvaldsen typically metastasizes into a full-blown dispute. It should be noted, however, that both Thorvaldsen’s defenders and his critics, in both contemporaneous and posthumous writings, agree on ascribing special status to the works that are known to have been completed by Thorvaldsen himself in the final stage.
Here it would seem most fitting to continue with a series of additional examples.
Thorvaldsen’s famous statue of Jason with the Golden Fleece, A822, is an example of a work that is known with certainty to have passed through the hands of both Thorvaldsen and his workers, and which Thorvaldsen then completed on his own. The latter is attested by Just Mathias Thiele, who was an eyewitness to Jason’s completion.
We also have a contract from 1803, indicating that the rough marble carving, referred to as “until the toothed chisel stage,” was executed by Thorvaldsen’s assistants for this task—the Swiss sculptor Heinrich Keller and the Italian Pietro Finelli. Here we have a method that was regarded by the sculptors of Thorvaldsen’s day as both modern and ideal: the sculptor himself designed the statue, produced a large-scale model in clay, and completed it in marble. The intervening stages consisted merely of so-called “mechanical” carving.
Details from Jason with the Golden Fleece, A822, which was produced following workshop practices then regarded as ideal, in which the sculptor generated his idea on his own in the form of a large clay model, delegated the rough marble carving to others, and then put the finishing touches on the marble version himself.
Thorvaldsen’s contract with Finelli and Keller emphasizes that the statue of Jason was “fatta ed inventata [made and invented]” by Thorvaldsen—and that Finelli and Keller are only providing mechanical assistance. This may be regarded as an early form of a copyright notice, as well as a clear division of labor. A more well-known analogy to this might be the way in which Donald Judd was able to send an artwork out for industrial painting and finishing without in any way undermining his status as the work’s owner and copyright holder.
A rather different example is offered by the work Dying Lion (The Lucerne Lion), A119, which Thorvaldsen was commissioned to produce for a monument in Lucerne. This monument was to honor the Swiss Guards who fought in vain for the King Louis XVI of France during the storming of the Tuileries by French revolutionary forces in 1792.
On his own, Thorvaldsen produced “only” a small initial model in clay. This maquette was then cast in plaster, and is found today in the Museum of History in Lucerne.
The process of scaling up from the small clay maquette to a large prototype for the finished monument was delegated in principle to one of Thorvaldsen’s best assistants, the Italian sculptor Luigi Bienaimé. The finished monument was carved out of a cliff near Lucerne, on a grand scale far larger than that of the original model (for example, the length of the lion in the completed monument was 9 meters, as opposed to 161 cm in the original model); the two carvers, one Swiss and one German, were not employed by Thorvaldsen. Thorvaldsen did provide instructions in the midst of the process, however, and also apparently performed “surgical operations,” as described above, on the large model produced by his apprentice.
The initial maquette produced by Thorvaldsen, known as the bozzetto, was praised highly by its first owner, the aforementioned Heinrich Keller, because it was produced solely and wholly by Thorvaldsen. Another viewer pronounced himself impressed with the Lion monument in its colossal execution, but reserved special praise for the model—another sign that the work of the artist was prized most highly.
Thorvaldsen’s 1833-1834 statue of the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg, cf. A114, is an example of a work where the master sculptor delegated even the early stages of the work—here the production of a maquette or bozzetto, A117, and a large clay model, cf. A114 —to one of his apprentices, namely, the Danish sculptor H. W. Bissen.
Thorvaldsen came up with the idea for the statue, and supervised the process throughout; but he let his apprentice undertake all of the manual labor. Because this statue was cast in bronze, the fraught question of who laid “the last hand” on a statue’s marble is miraculously irrelevant here.
|Maquette of Johann Gutenberg, A117. Modeled in Rome by H. W. Bissen in Rome in 1833 on Thorvaldsen’s instructions.||Original model by Johann Gutenberg, A114. Modeled in Rome by H. W. Bissen in 1833-1834 after the maquette at left, A117, and under Thorvaldsen’s supervision.|
From time to time, things seem to have gone too hastily for Thorvaldsen and his workshop, and the master sculptor may be presumed to have regretted not having “put the finishing touches” himself on an artwork bearing his name. An example of this is the 1824 relief The Ages of Love, A426, which to Thorvaldsen’s later regret—according to his valet C. F. Wilckens—had been carved in marble by an apprentice, following which casting molds were made of the marble version for future reproduction. The latter molds, however, were made before Thorvaldsen reviewed his apprentice’s work himself.
The Ages of Love, A426.
This, then, is an example of an artwork for which Thorvaldsen did not provide his apprentice with adequate supervision during the process of production—or at least failed to review the apprentice’s work.
For a more serious example of mistakes that could arise without Thorvaldsen’s continuous supervision, we turn now to a comparison of various replicas of the relief Hector with Paris and Helen.
Hector with Paris and Helen, 1809, original model, A499.
In the 1809 original model, A499, three figures are visible: Paris, the Trojan prince who has removed his weapons and is relaxing, as if in peacetime, with the beautiful Helen, who sits with a piece of cloth in her lap. Into the scene storms Paris’s brother, Hector, fully clad for battle. He excoriates Paris as a disgraceful coward for not participating in the defense of Troy, to which the Greeks had laid siege in order to win back the abducted Helen.
At the center of the relief we find the core of the conflict—namely, the beautiful Helen—sitting with her one hand strangely raised, seemingly without reason. But why?
No explanation is given in the original model; nor is the matter clarified in the posthumous marble carving, A774, which was executed following the same original model by Hermann Ernst Freund, under Bissen’s supervision.
By contrast, the raised hand is explained by the marble exemplar that was produced at Thorvaldsen’s workshop in his own lifetime, and which is found today at the University Library in Trondheim, Norway (Gunnerus Library). There a thread is faintly visible, stretching from the cloth on Helen’s lap to her raised hand. And this explains Helen’s hand position: she is sewing, and is displayed in the course of doing so.
The positioning of the hands is clarified in this marble version from Thorvaldsen’s own day, in which the hint of a thread can be discerned between the cloth and Helen’s hand. Hector with Paris and Helen, marble, 1817. University Library in Trondheim, Norway (Gunnerus Library).
The central positioning of the sewing cloth is crucial for understanding the story behind the relief. Namely: Paris has become a weakling, satisfied with a life of leisure by his woman’s side in the safe confines of home. Though war rages outside, Paris has become an observer of peaceful feminine pursuits; his weapon lies beside him, unused.
Without Helen’s thread, one would be unable to deduce that she was engaged in such handiwork. Adding the thread back, then, was an important correction to the original model—presumably due to Thorvaldsen having reviewed the model and instructed that the thread of course be restored in the final version.
Other changes, too, are visible between the original model and the Trondheim relief. These include the shaping of the end of Paris’s bow, Paris’s foot on the dais (which is more visible in the Trondheim relief than in the original model), and the design of the shield handle. Taken together, these changes indicate that the Trondheim relief was not a pure 1:1 copy of the original model, but rather that certain small but essential details were adjusted and corrected along the way.
Similar small changes are visible in numerous other replicas made in Thorvaldsen’s own day, indicating a far more flexible, living reproduction process than the pure 1:1 copying facilitated by the pointing method then in vogue, based on large plaster models.
The examples of The Ages of Love and the relief with Hector, Paris, and Helen both indicate that Thorvaldsen was normally involved in the entire production process of “his” works, and that the lack of supervision by him would compromise the result, or indeed lead directly to problems with comprehension. In sum: the error-ridden versions of the relief do not reflect the intentions behind the works.
Thorvaldsen’s workshop practice was thus necessarily two-faced. On the one hand, his marble works were process of a process that was principally mechanical. On the other hand, this mechanical process was invariably preceded by a design phase and the first drawn and modeled sketches, all done by Thorvaldsen himself—and was then corrected along the way following the master artist’s intentions. In Thorvaldsen’s day, “outsourcing” of this kind was simply the way to go for a smart, modern, and economically savvy sculptor.
If we wish to take this point to an extreme, we might say that the marble versions of Thorvaldsen’s works are thus not essentially different from the bronze versions, which were also sent to professional specialists to model after his plaster casts. It is certainly true that Thorvaldsen’s method permitted “outsourcing” to such a degree—a point emphasized by his critics. But to put it in this way is perhaps too polemical, since marble replicas would inevitably differ from one another depending on who carved them, on the character of the marble itself, and on how details of the sculpture were changed (or not) under Thorvaldsen’s supervision. For this reason, the master sculptor’s ongoing corrections can indeed be said to have played a decisive role.
The American painter Rembrandt Peale, a contemporary of Thorvaldsen’s, can be cited as a spokesman for critics of this modern sculptural technique. In his Italian travel notes from the years 1829-1830, Peale wrote as follows about the modern sculptor in general:
“The sculptor of the present day is scarcely required to touch his marble, or even to know how to cut it.”
Here is his verdict on Thorvaldsen in particular:
“Thorwaldsen [sic], whose models are seldom remarkable for the delicacy of the finish, is so well satisfied with the general accuracy of the work done here, that statues which he is making for his native country, will be boxed up at Carrara and sent to Denmark, without once being seen by him.”
Another opponent was the French painter and art critic Henri Delaborde (1811–1899), who in an 1868 review of Eugène Plons (1836-1895) book on Thorvaldsen issued the following sharp critique (among others):
“But when Thorvaldsen, starting around 1820, ceased to be the master, but turned instead into a prolific producer, the hubbub surrounding his person and name rose in tandem with his own increasing abuse of his talent.”
“He [Thorvaldsen] almost insulted his own dignity in his eagerness to seek and accept commissions of all kinds, and to receive fees from all sides—fees that he raised continually, not only because of the quantity of orders, but also in inverse proportion to the limited time and personal effort he invested in them.
Surrounded as he was by assistants and apprentices, to whom he delegated the work that he himself was to sign after completing the first draft, and occupied as he was with the number of products that his workshop—or his factory, one could almost say—was capable of delivering, Thorvaldsen was almost exclusively a sculpture-entrepreneur with a vast clientele. He greatly abused the trust that these had for his name.”
A sculptor’s possession of the ability to work in marble was regarded as obligatory both by contemporaneous observers, like Peale, and by later ones, like Delaborde; that Thorvaldsen more or less completely declined to do so provoked criticism. Even today, the prospect of encountering an artwork created exclusively by the master artist himself or herself still has an almost intimate, cultic effect.
In response to Peale’s criticism, we may remark that while not all of Thorvaldsen’s trips to Carrara have been dated and documented, we do have evidence attesting that Thorvaldsen’s trusted employee Pietro Antonio Bienaimé wrote to him from Carrara to the effect that Christ, cf. A82, which was among the works carved in marble there, was ready for correction by Thorvaldsen.
Whether the master himself was there or not might actually seem irrelevant today, when we ought to content ourselves by regarding, and evaluating all the works that emerged from Thorvaldsen’s workshop and bear his name as among Thorvaldsen’s oeuvre. This is not to say that we cannot speak of differences in quality; but those would exist for any artist irrespective of the extent to which the “master” was directly involved in their production.
What the preceding has attempted to show is that Thorvaldsen’s corrective hand and/or spirit hovered over his entire production line—whether in person or via his best assistants.
In this context, it is relevant to adduce a long, intense debate in Great Britain that arose when a marble version of Antonio Canovas The Three Graces was put up for sale by the trustees of Woburn Abbey, the family seat of the Duke of Bedford. This statue group was a later version of the artwork already found in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which had been the first version to emerge from Canova’s workshop.
Opponents of acquiring the British version argued that it was a mere copy of the St. Petersburg exemplar, which as the first version was by definition more “original.” Proponents, on the other hand, argued that it was a better version, inasmuch as it was a revised edition for which Canova had made use of the opportunity to improve on his original work; or that the order of priority was irrelevant, since both sculptures had had been sculpted after the same original model, and so were two (not insignificantly) good versions of the same statue group.
This example illustrates beautifully how important it is to apply a broader conception of art to works produced using the modern method, which both Thorvaldsen and Canova employed—and to free oneself from the dogma of originality.
The idolization of the artist as a genius is closely connected to the concept of originality. When Thorvaldsen was elegized by his contemporaries for his talent and genius—as in Adam Oehlenschläger’s 1838 tribute song—their tribute was directed both toward Thorvaldsen’s abilities as the “idea man” behind his many works (i.e., the works designed by him as an artist-genius) and toward the work of his chisel in the marble, to which the tribute song returns again and again. In the royal melody’s panegyric to the artist, it is Thorvaldsen’s spirit and his hand that are emphasized, and not the practical division of labor in his workshop.
In many ways, Thorvaldsen’s praxis does not differ from those of today’s star architects or artists, where we also find numerous employees, all of whom are expected to be willing to align their own work with the star’s idea and general line.
Does their reliance on large numbers of employees make us think any less of these superstars’ results? Or the point rather that—as in the art word generally—we must evaluate every individual artwork independently? Thorvaldsen’s workshop practices, which were ultramodern in his own age, remain so even today—making him a vitally relevant example in the ongoing debate about art and originality.
Last updated 06.03.2019