The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Gotskalk Thorvaldsen's Admission at Vartov 1805

The initiative that led to the elder Thorvaldsen’s hospital admission

Gotskalk Thorvaldsen, father of Bertel Thorvaldsen, was apparently quite poor in his final years; and in a letter dated 31.1.1805, Nicolai Abildgaard, Bertel Thorvaldsen’s teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, inquired about his care. The younger Thorvaldsen then raised the issue with his confidant C. F. F. Stanley. Stanley suggested (cf. the letter dated 9.3.1805 from Stanley to Thorvaldsen) writing to his acquaintance Balthasar Schiøtt, a Copenhagen Municipality official, asking Schiøtt to investigate whether Gotskalk Thorvaldsen could be admitted to Vartov Hospital in Copenhagen, which had been established in 1724-1725 as a lodging house for the elderly and chronically ill. Bertel Thorvaldsen evidently complied with this suggestion, as Stanley sent a still-unknown letter to Schiøtt, dated March 16, 1805, to which Schiøtt reacted promptly, securing Thorvaldsen admission to Vartov within a very short time (see his letter to Stanley dated 1.6.1805).
In the records of Vartov Hospital (held today in the Copenhagen City Archives), the following entry is found: “On June 13, 1805, Gottschalck Torvaldsen, 65 years old, was admitted to Vartov as a patient; he was born in Iceland, where his father had been a church provost; he had once been married, but his wife is long dead.” (See the letter dated 11.12.1827 from Rasmus Platou to Thiele). However, a memorandum to the Vartov leadership dated May 16, 1805 (also found in the Copenhagen City Archives), Gotskalk Thorvaldsen had been accepted for “admission” on May 13, 1805, one month earlier than the date in the records indicates. Finally, in the Mandtals-bog over Wartou-hospitals-Lemmer fra Iste January til 31te December 1805 [Census of Patients at Vartov Hospital from January 1 to December 31, 1805] (Copenhagen City Archives), the record for Gotskalk Thorvaldsen appears as follows:

No.: 16 (in place of a master blacksmith who had recently (April 14) died).
Names: Gotschalck Torwaldsen.
Age: 65.
Admitted on Whose Authority: Hospital administration.
Previous Position and Employment: Sculptor.
Family Relation: Son of a church provost.
Work Suited for and Capable of Contributing: no assignment.
Date of Admission: June 1, 1805.
Weekly Charitable Allowance: 3 [sign for mark].

The hospital and old age home at Vartov was closed in the 1930s. Today Vartov is used for other purposes, and is owned and operated by Grundtvigsk Forum.

The younger Thorvaldsen’s view of his father’s hospital admission

Gotskalk Thorvaldsen’s admission to Vartov is mentioned briefly in Thiele I, p. 270, and is further discussed in Thiele II, pp. 7-12 and pp. 34-35. Here it emerges that Thorvaldsen found it humiliating not to have been able to provide his father with economic support. At Thiele II, p. 11, Thiele writes that the matter was perhaps resolved a bit too quickly, and that both Abildgaard and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s good friend Jørgen West were involved in efforts to persuade Gotskalk Thorvaldsen to accept the generous offer of admission.
It is evident that Gotskalk Thorvaldsen was by no means enthusiastic about his son’s effort to care for him. In the letter to his son, now lost, which he sent along with Schiøtt’s June 1, 1805 letter to Stanley, Gotskalk Thorvaldsen evidently (according to Thiele II, p. 12) protested so harshly that the younger Thorvaldsen appears to have destroyed the letter immediatelyafter receiving it (cf. Thiele II, p. 34)—unlike the other letters he received from his parents, which Thorvaldsen devotedly preserved in an “old, black, moldy, and gilt-edged letter bag” (see Thiele I, p. VI).
Gotskalk Thorvaldsen’s subsequent letter, dated 20.10.1805, indicates that his son must have responded to him (in a now-lost letter) and explained himself. Here Gotskalk Thorvaldsen apologizes for his hard words: “If I should I have used certain hard expressions in my last letter, I ask you now to hide them under the cloak of love. You can imagine how I felt when I came to Vartov and was to live there in the midst of the lame, blind, mute, and deformed of all kinds. In my bitterness, I hardly knew what I was writing.”

According to Thiele, the matter’s quick resolution, the involvement of Thorvaldsen’s good friends, and the elder Thorvaldsen’s aggravation at being committed at an institution for the poor only made the affair more embarrassing for Thorvaldsen. He did not thank Stanley for his efforts—at least not immediately, or of his own accord—as is clear from Stanley’s letter dated 30.8.1805 to Thorvaldsen, in which Stanley expressed his surprise at the fact that his friend did not devote even a single word to the matter in two successive letters. Indeed: the matter seems to have embarrassed Thorvaldsen so much that his immediate reaction was silence. Stanley’s direct inquiry about the father’s well-being and the son’s view of the situation did, however, lead the younger Thorvaldsen to write a letter, now unknown, thanking Stanley—as is evident from the latter’s subsequent letter, dated 7.9.1805.
At Thiele II, pp. 34-35, Thiele mentions Thorvaldsen’s silence, but was evidently unaware that Stanley was ultimately able to elicit a reaction from him about the matter.

This affair is interesting because it shows that Thorvaldsen was conscious of his social background, and perhaps was also weighed down by it. Despite his growing fame, Thorvaldsen felt humiliated—or, perhaps, even more humiliated than usual—by his inability to care for his father discreetly, and in a manner that was satisfactory to the older man.
In a subsequent letter to Abildgaard, dated 23.9.1806, Thorvaldsen mentions that he had asked his friend in Italy, the Danish diplomat Herman Schubart, to request that his sister in Copenhagen, Countess Schimmelmann, help Gotskalk Thorvaldsen. On this Thiele remarks (Thiele II, p. 66): “And so his sorrow and worry for the old man had grown so great that, at last, he set aside all embarrassment and shame, and revealed the penury of his family to his distinguished friend and well-wisher.”

Gotskalk Thorvaldsen died on 24.10.1806 at Vartov.


  • Letter dated 31.1.1805 from Abildgaard to Thorvaldsen.
  • Letter dated 9.3.1805 from C. F. F. Stanley to Thorvaldsen.
  • Letter dated 1.6.1805 from Balthasar Schiøtt to C. F. F. Stanley.
  • Letter dated 24.8.1805 from C. F. F. Stanley to Thorvaldsen.
  • Letter dated 30.8.1805 from C. F. F. Stanley to Thorvaldsen.
  • Letter dated 7.9.1805 from C. F. F. Stanley to Thorvaldsen.
  • Letter dated 19.10.1805 from Abildgaard to Thorvaldsen.
  • Letter dated 20.10.1805 from Gotskalk Thorvaldsen to Thorvaldsen.
  • Letter dated 23.9.1806 from Thorvaldsen to Abildgaard.
  • Letter dated 11.12.1827 from Rasmus Platou to Thiele.

Last updated 23.10.2017