The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Drawing Plaster Figures after Thorvaldsen

  • Ejner Johansson,, 2001
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    Ejner Johansson: ‘Drawing plaster figures after Thorvaldsen’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 2001, p. 139-153.

    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.


From far back in time, the study of the human figure was at the heart of instruction in the academies of art. By drawing after casts of ancient Greek and Roman statues, artists acquired antiquity’s norms for beauty. Classicism’s theorist, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, maintained that if they built on the Greek rules for beauty, artists would also learn to see the beauty of nature in the human figure.

The Copenhagen Academy of Fine Arts – like all other European academies – was well provided with plaster casts after antique art. The students drew them in order to move up into the Life School, where they drew after live male models. Meanwhile, as the aesthetic ideas of classicism gradually dried up and history painting was replaced by genre painting using contemporary motifs, Winckelmann’s theories were felt to be obsolete.

As a result of reforms in the Academy as late as 1853, the sculptor H. W. Bissen and the art historian N. L. Høyen sought – unsuccessfully – to reverse the order of lessons in drawing, so that the pupil began by drawing live models and only after this studied the ancient plaster figures. This represented a clear renunciation of Winckelmann’s theories.

As early as 1825, however, the students at the Copenhagen Academy were provided with an alternative to the ancient casts; from now onwards, Thorvaldsen’s figures were being brought to Denmark, one shipload after another, gradually filling the entire Academy of Fine Arts and turning it into a kind of Thorvaldsen’s Museum. From the start, Professor Eckersberg set his pupils drawing after Thorvaldsen – a move that proved popular. Thorvaldsen’s figures were modern art; they were a welcome change from the familiar models, and, not least, they were very much closer to nature and the present time than were the antiques – something the pupils of the time undoubtedly felt more strongly than we do today. When you look at Thorvaldsen’s works, you would not think there was a single ancient cast in Copenhagen, maintained Høyen, who had no difficulty in viewing his works as statues of young boys and girls that had merely been furnished with names from antiquity. This was a view probably connected with Thorvaldsen’s extensive use of live models. The art historian Julius Lange also sensed the modern age in his works and denied outright that they could be seen as “antique”.

In this way, Thorvaldsen’s sculptures helped the budding Golden Age painters even during their time at the Academy to free themselves from classicism’s aesthetic norms for the reproduction of figures – and helped them to find a figure style they could use in their modern genre paintings. Eckersberg had to ensure the rest through his tuition after live models – now including female models. These developments took place at the same time as the new genre painting was taking off. Here, one of the favourite subjects for young artists was the depiction of the surroundings in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. As a consequence, we have an excellent idea of what it looked like there in the 1820s and 30s with Thorvaldsen’s plaster figures everywhere where there was room for them and with people busy drawing them.

Last updated 11.05.2017