The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

The heroic Dead and The living Hero

  • Charlotte Christensen,, 2003
  • This is a re-publication of the a summary of the article:

    Charlotte Christensen: ‘The heroic Dead and The living Hero’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 2003, p. 90-102.

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

The concept of heroism does not occupy a place of great importance either in sculpture or literature during the period between the official inauguration of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1754 and Thorvaldsen’s leaving Denmark to study in Rome in 1796. Denmark was experiencing a period of peace, from which it derived a very large economic benefit – and for this reason phrases such as “the great period of Danish mercantilism” have been used of it. If an occasional tribute to the martial virtues is encountered, it is in the use of a turn of phrase such as “Mars, the bringer of peace”. This forms part of the decorations of the Academy dating from 1788, at a time when Crown Prince Frederik, later King Frederik 6., had been responsible for a brief little “war” in Bohuslen in Sweden. The painter Nicolai Abildgaard had designed the model for this artistic tribute, and it is perhaps possible that Thorvaldsen took part in executing the finished work. Abildgaard had also glorified peaceful female heroism in the painting he submitted for admission to the Academy, “Danish Women Donating Their Ornaments and Jewels to Redeem King Svend Forkbeard from Jomsborg” . This was started in 1777 and was in the possession of the Royal Danish Academy about the time when Thorvaldsen was receiving tuition there. Otherwise, both Thorvaldsen and the Academy refrained from subjects that could be seen as commenting on either local or global politics. So the subject for the major gold medal, which Thorvaldsen was awarded in the eventful year of 1793, was “The Apostles Peter and John Healing a Lame Man in Front of the Temple Gate”.

An important heroic figure in the pictorial art of the time was the dying philosopher, treated by several of the French neo-classic artists, while the trend-setting modern historical painting of the time was Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” (1770, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), which presented a hero in contemporary costume. A graphic reproduction also made this painting well known in Denmark. The most significant rejuvenator of the portrait of the hero, both ancient and modern, was Jacques-Louis David. Thorvaldsen was probably informed of David’s revolutionary heroic portrayals by the French artist’s Danish pupil, the painter J. L. Lund, who worked in David’s studio from August 1800 to April 1802.

Of special significance for the concept of “a hero” was Napoleon Bonaparte’s military and civil career. Only for those witnessing his meteoric appearance on the European stage did it feel natural to use the bombastic formulations of classical rhetoric and art in relation to a living person. So it is remarkable that the greatest sculptor of the age and the artist with whom people of that time repeatedly compared Thorvaldsen, Antonio Canova, worked on a colossal statue of Napoleon at the same time as Jason was taking shape. Thorvaldsen took many of his most important compositions from Canova’s repertoire, or he created his figures in competition with the works of the Italian sculptor, as a more modern counterpart to his predecessor’s style with its undercurrent of the rococo. That Thorvaldsen in his sculptures worked “against” Canova, was something on which his secretary and first biographer, J. M. Thiele, already commented. Canova’s gigantic, nude portrait statue, about which Napoleon himself was not enthusiastic, finally came into the possession of the man who defeated the French Emperor, the Duke of Wellington, and is today in Apsley House in London. Thorvaldsen’s Jason and Canova’s Napoleon are linked in the first international comment to appear on the figure of Jason, an article starting out from information deriving from the German sculptor Schadow, printed in Berlin in the periodical “Der Freymüthige” no. 87, 1803.

Last updated 20.01.2020