The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Thorvaldsen's Letter Writing Process

Rather two sculpture groups than a single letter

It was well known that Thorvaldsen was anything but fond of writing letters. As one of his good friends, Herman Schubart, wrote of him: “I know that he would rather model two [sculpture] groups than write a single letter” (cf. the letter dated 30.9.1805). Thorvaldsen’s aversion to taking up the pen is discussed extensively in the Related Article on Thorvaldsen’s Spoken and Written Language, to which the present article is an appendix of sorts.
Here the reader will find examples of Thorvaldsen’s letter-writing process, from the first draft to the completed letter, with attention paid to the number of rounds of revision involved. The goal is to provide concrete insight into how much of this process, and how little, Thorvaldsen was involved in himself; the degree to which he was in fact able to write on his own; and the extent to which he was helped by his so-called amanuenses (secretaries to aid with writing). In his first years in Italy, Thorvaldsen evidently managed to take care of a greater portion of his own writing needs than would later become his habit. In Estrup’s biography, for example, Thorvaldsen states that his biannual reports to the Academy of Fine Arts during the period 1797-1804 “always had a fortunate ring: he wrote them himself.” Nevertheless, Thorvaldsen did receive help with the writing process even at an early stage—as is evident in the two examples presented here. Later in his life, meanwhile, Thorvaldsen was more inclined to let his amanuenses write his letters for him in their entirety.
Here it should be noted that today—naturally enough—we have direct knowledge only of the written component of Thorvaldsen’s letter-writing process. We simply do not know to what degree Thorvaldsen dictated his letters to amanuenses, planned their content with them, or allowed them to formulate the letters themselves.

This article may be extended at some point to include additional examples.

A letter dated September 23, 1806

A letter dated 23.9.1806 from Thorvaldsen to Abildgaard is extant in three versions: two drafts and the posted letter. One draft was written by Thorvaldsen himself, while the other was penned by his friend and fellow lodger C. F. Høyer, who often helped Thorvaldsen with letter-writing during the years 1806-1811. The formulations in Thorvaldsen’s draft differ more from the letter as mailed than do those in Høyer’s draft, which are more or less identical to the ultimate result. Thorvaldsen’s draft must therefore have been an earlier draft than Høyer’s.
Moreover, given chronological evidence pertinent to the completed letter, it is likely that all three versions of the letter must have been written on September 23, 1806; on this see more in the general commentary to the posted letter. The letter’s three extant versions thus give us an illustrative look at how one of Thorvaldsen’s letters came to be written.

One can imagine that the writing process took place in the following way: Thorvaldsen received a letter from Abildgaard dated 14.8.1806—most likely in mid-September 1806 (on this see the Related Article on Mail Processing Time). Abildgaard’s letter required an urgent reply, as it reflected a misunderstanding about finances that Thorvaldsen was eager to dispel (see the letter at issue for more details). Thorvaldsen composed the first draft of his reply on the back of another letter that he had just received. He then asked Høyer to revise his draft, and finally copied Høyer’s revised version himself, while nonetheless making certain adjustments to Høyer’s text.

Here follows a comparative account of the text of each of the letter’s three versions. Where words are marked in grey, they were ultimately not included in the letter as mailed.

Thorvaldsen’s first draft

m28, nr. 34v

Thorvaldsen’s own draft of the letter, written in pencil.
Click here to see a larger version of the photograph.

Good Sir, Councillor of Justice!
I received your letter of August 14th with great pleasure, and am writing to thank you for the 80 Scudi for Museo Pio Clementino that I have duly received. It was not my intention to demand anything other than the three-fourths of my travel stipend with regard to the misunderstanding in my previous letter, it was not my intention to demand of the Academy anything other than the 3 fourths of my travel stipend that I have not yet withdrawn, even though I have often been in financial straits, as I surely will have hardly can expect to extract enough from my earnings to be able to afford to travel home, and so I beg the good sir, Councillor of Justice, to speak with Frølich and co. about sending me a bill of exchange here for the remainder of my travel stipend. Professor Baden’s bust is finished, and will be sent at the first opportunity, together with Saxtorph’s bust for Dr. Scheel, which (between us) I did not make myself, and which has been paid to me.
Besides this, I commend myself to the Councillor’s favor and ask you not to forget the matter of money in my previous letter, as I often am in finan to send me
as soon as possible whatever you can, as I am one often puts me in financial straits, as those I work for do not send money at the proper time, [while] I cannot let even one day pass without defraying my expenses in my workshop. Mr. Høyer Here follows a letter from Mr. Høyer, who is an excellent person with whom I have the honor of living together, and what little I can do for him is done with the greatest pleasure, when you see my elderly father, do greet him [and say that] I have asked Baron Schubart to write to his sister Countess Schimmelmann about doing something for him, which I will repay with the works I am doing for you, but the great ones readily forget what they promise

As is evident visually, only a very small minority of the formulations in this draft were preserved in the letter as it was ultimately mailed (the phrases marked in grey were removed, while the black text survived). On the other hand, the draft’s thematic content is preserved in the posted letter, apart from a few important details. It is also clear that tales of Thorvaldsen’s inability to write are greatly exaggerated. The sculptor articulates himself well enough, even if his spelling problems and difficulty in tying all of his sentences together are also evident. For more on the latter issues, see the Related Article Thorvaldsen’s Spoken and Written Language.

Høyer’s second draft

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First page of Høyer’s revised version of Thorvaldsen’s draft.
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It was with great enjoyment that I received your letter of Aug. 14th, and I acknowledge your solicitude for me as ever—I did duly receive the 80 Scudi for the Museo Pio Clementino.—As for the misunderstanding regarding my demand from the Academy—It was my intention that the dear sir, Councillor of Justice, would take care that the three last quarterly payments of my stipend, which I still have owing to me, be disbursed to me, and that to this end, you would request that Frölich & co. send a bill of exchange to me here regarding the portion of my travel stipend that I still have owing to me
Professor Baden’s bust is finished, and will be sent upon request, along with Saxtorph’s bust for Dr. Scheel, which, between us, I did not make myself —
As ever, I commend myself to the favor of the Councillor of Justice, sir. But
Although I am certain that you, as promised, have me in remembrance, I do nonetheless take the liberty of asking you once more to take care that I be sent money as soon as possible—For it often happens that the money I should receive is not paid to me at the proper time, and I need money every day in order to defray the expenses in my workshop
When you see my elderly father, please greet him and say that I have asked Baron Schubart to write to his sister, Countess Schimmelmann, asking her to show him solicitude. And that in gratitude for this, I would show my appreciation with my work,
That you, dear sir, Councillor of Justice, do care for my elderly father, that I know; but I do not know what the great ones, who are always so ready to make promises, do for him. As ever, most honorable sir, Councillor of Justice, I wish that you and your family are healthy, and commending myself with deep reverence, I remain, as ever, with all respect, your most grateful and entirely devoted

m28, nr. 33,2

The last page of Høyer’s revised version of Thorvaldsen’s draft.
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A visual scan of the text in Thorvaldsen’s and Høyer’s drafts already makes clear that Høyer was by far the more practiced correspondent of the two. In Høyer’s draft, the block of text forms a clearer rectangle; the lines are more regular; the handwriting is smaller and more flowing. Høyer’s linguistic revision of Thorvaldsen’s draft also reflects Høyer’s more extensive writing experience: the style has been improved without changing the content. For example, Thorvaldsen’s sentence:

…Besides this, I commend myself to the Councillor’s favor and ask you not to forget the matter of money in my previous letter to send me as soon as possible whatever you can…

becomes, in Høyer’s more polished, indeed immaculate, version:

…Although I am certain that you, as promised, have me in remembrance, I do nonetheless take the liberty of asking you once more to take care that I be sent money as soon as possible…

From a present-day perspective, on the other hand, Thorvaldsen’s language does seem more direct and less ornamental. The best example here is the sculptor’s line: great ones readily forget what they promise, which in Høyer’s version becomes: I do not know what the great ones, who are always so ready to make promises, do… In this example, Thorvaldsen’s talent for formulating short sentences in an epigrammatic style is lost to Høyer’s high-flown, diplomatic wordsmithing. At the time, however, Thorvaldsen’s more direct, unschooled approach could well have been regarded as breaching the etiquette and epistolary customs of the day. On this see also the Related Article On Letters and Writing.

The letter as mailed

23.9.1806,1
First page of the posted letter (Manuscript Department, The Royal Library).
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Good Sir, Councillor of Justice!
It was with great enjoyment that I received your letter of Aug. 14th, and I acknowledge your solicitude for me as ever—I did duly receive the 80 Scudi for the Museo Pio Clementino.—As for the misunderstanding regarding my demand from the Academy—It was my intention that the dear sir, Councillor of Justice, would take care that the three last quarters of my stipend, which I still have owing to me, be disbursed to me, and that, to this end, you would request that Frölich & co. send a bill of exchange to me here regarding the portion of my travel stipend that I still have owing to me.—Professor Baden’s bust is finished, and will be sent upon request, along with another bust for Dr. Scheel.
Although I am certain that you, as promised, have me in remembrance, I do nonetheless take the liberty of asking you once more to take care that I be sent money as soon as possible. For it often happens that the money I should receive is not paid to me at the proper time, and I need money every day in order to defray the expenses in my workshop.
When you see my elderly father, please greet him and say that I have asked Baron Schubart to write to his sister, Countess Schimmelmann, asking her to show him solicitude. And that in gratitude for this, I would show you my appreciation with my work.
That you, dear sir, Councillor of Justice, do care for my elderly father, that I know; but I do not know what the great ones, who are always so ready to make promises, do for him. I commend myself to the Councillor’s continuing kindness for me, and with all respect and gratitude remain your

most humble servant
B. Thorvaldsen

P.S. Here follows a letter from Mr. Høyer, who is an excellent person. I am so glad to live together with him, and what little I can do for him, I do with pleasure

23.9.1806,2
Last page of the posted letter (Manuscript Department, The Royal Library).
Click here to see a larger version of the photograph.

It is evident that Thorvaldsen’s final version of the letter follows Høyer’s revised version almost slavishly. There are, however, two essential changes: Thorvaldsen has decided not to mention that he was not the artist behind the bust of Mathias Saxtorph, even though he had brought up the point in his own first draft; for more on this, see the Related Article on Saxtorph’s Bust. Moreover, Thorvaldsen has toned down the valedictions in Høyer’s draft significantly, as he clearly did not find such exaggerated formality necessary when addressing Abildgaard. In the posted letter, Thovaldsen’s valediction is both polite and friendly, to be sure—

I commend myself to the Councillor’s continuing kindness for me, and with all respect and gratitude remain your
most humble servant

—but it is less beseeching, and more self-aware, than are Høyer’s rather hollow gallantries:

As ever, most honorable sir, Councillor of Justice, I wish that you and your family are healthy, and commending myself with deep reverence, I remain, as ever, with all respect, your most grateful and entirely devoted

A similar dampening of polite expressions can also be seen a letter dated 6.8.1804 from Thorvaldsen to Abildgaard, for which Herman Schubart had written a first draft. Here, once again, Schubart’s first draft reflects a more formal epistolary norm than the friendlier tone found in the letter as mailed, and which corresponds more closely to the tone that Thorvaldsen normally used in his letters to Abildgaard.

That this letter of September 23, 1806 was produced in three stages is apparently typical of Thorvaldsen’s letter-writing process. His difficulties in composing letters are evident, but they are due in no small part to the fact that—presumably because of his lack of refined schooling—Thorvaldsen often expressed himself more bluntly than was regarded as correct and proper at the time.

Draft letter to Herman Schubart, ca. February 1, 1804

Thorvaldsen’s letter dated approximately 1.2.1804 to Herman Schubart also represents a quite illustrative example of his letter-writing process. In this case, however, we only have a draft letter written in pencil by Thorvaldsen, while Georg Zoëga must have been the source of numerous strikethroughs, corrections, and additions in ink. These corrections bear the unmistakable mark of Zoëga’s hand, as for example in the latter’s letters dated early February 1802 and 24.10.1797.

m28, nr. 20,1

First page of Thorvaldsen’s pencil draft, with Zoëga’s corrections in pen.
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The original pencil draft gives a very good indication of how Thorvaldsen wrote on his own devices. In order to emphasize the difference between Zoëga’s corrected version and Thorvaldsen’s original, the pencil draft is first copied below without Zoëga’s corrections.
Thorvaldsen’s penciled text is sometimes very difficult to decipher, not only because of Zoëga’s corrections in pen, but also as a result of Thorvaldsen’s own strikethroughs and overwriting in pencil. Despite this, the text is reproduced here as accurately as possible; the words in grey were altered during Zoëga’s revision of the draft, while those in black were spared.

Thorvaldsen’s original draft

It is impossible for me, your Excellency, to express the devotion and gratitude I feel when seeing ever more[?] fruits of your sincere goodness toward me[,] as I am so fortunate to have you as my benefactor[,] my greatest pleasure [is] to seek as far as possible to make myself worthy of your noble and excellent disposition[.] Your bountiful sister, Countess Schimmelmann The translation of the two letters from your bountiful sister, Countess Schimmelmann, touched me sincerely to read through. The two busts I took[?] to have the goodness I beg your Excellency [?] to thank the Countess on my behalf. I am sorry that the two busts that were in my forgotten crate were not able to be at the Countess’s pleasure, but I permit myself the pleasure of hoping that, with your help, I might obtain advice on completing something that would give pleasure to your good sister[.] I have the honor of thanking your Excellency for the first for the initial sum[.] As soon as I begin to work on something for myself, I will take the liberty of asking your Excellency [to provide?] me with something, I am not truly underway yet, but hope that will happen soon, I have not done anything else after your departure from here [other] than modeled some busts, which are Princesse de Galitzin, her sister’s son, Vorontzo, and Count Moltke[.] I am at work on your Bernstorff, and as soon as I have it finished, I will model a figure that I am not entirely in agreement with myself about what it will be. My Jason is so far along that it is waiting for me; but I do not yet dare venture to work in my workshop on account of the humidity. Your Excellency must forgive this me this mere scribbling, as because I am unaccustomed to write, I must burden you with such a letter that you will almost be able to read, but I trust in your kindness, which of which I have so many proofs, and so remain your

 

Zoëga’s corrected version

Sir, high-born Baron,
It is impossible for me to express to your Excellency the devotion and gratitude I feel when continually seeing new fruits of your sincere goodness toward me. As I am so fortunate to have you as my patron, my greatest pleasure should be to seek, as far as possible, to make myself worthy of your noble and excellent disposition. The translation sent to me of the two letters from your sister, Countess Schimmelmann, touched me sincerely; I beg your Excellency to thank the Countess in my name. I am sorry that the two busts that were in my forgotten crate were not able to be delivered to her, but now I await advice, from your kindness, on what subject I best could work with that might grant her pleasure. I accept with gratitude the advance payment offered, and once I again begin to work on something for myself, I will take the liberty of asking your Excellency for payment for the same. I am not truly underway yet, but hope that will happen soon. Since your departure, I have done nothing other than modeled some busts, namely, of Princesse de Galitzin; her sister’s son, Vorontzo; and Count Moltke[.] I am at work on your Bernstorff, and when it is finished, I intend to model a figure that I am not entirely in agreement with myself about what it will be. My Jason is so far along that it is waiting for me; but I do not yet dare to work in my workshop on account of the humidity. Your Excellency must forgive me this mere scribbling, as because I am unaccustomed to write, I burden you with a letter that you will almost be able to read. I trust in your kindness, of which I have so many proofs, and so remain your



Although Thorvaldsen does close his draft by begging pardon for his “Smørerie” [mere scribbling] on account of his lack of practice in writing, and even though there indeed are a good number of mistakes in the uncorrected pencil draft, this document nonetheless refutes the myth that the sculptor was entirely incapable of formulating himself in writing. (For an extended discussion, see the Related Article on Thorvaldsen’s Spoken and Written Language.)

m28, nr. 20,2

Last page of Thorvaldsen’s pencil draft, with Zoëga’s corrections in pen.
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Draft letter to Herman Schubart, ca. 27.10.1804

The Archives contain two drafts of Thorvaldsen’s unknown letter dated 27.10.1804 to Herman Schubart. Of these, one is somewhat more thorough than the other. Although not all elements or stages in the writing process are known in this case, these two extant drafts do provide a very clear picture of the difficulties that Thorvaldsen faced when he needed to write by his own hand.

Last updated 12.10.2015