The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

The old man and the cave

  • William Gelius,, 2001
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    William Gelius: ‘The old man and the cave’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 2001, p. 179-190.

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


The article is concerned with three paintings of fishermen by the genre painter Ernst Meyer forming part of the Thorvaldsens Museum collection: A Capri Fisherman (A268), A Neapolitan Fisherman at his Door (B269) and the oil sketch A Capri Fisherman with his Net (B270).

The first of these, portraying the old fisherman in a cave (fig. 1), is the one to which most attention is devoted. It is argued that by fashioning the cave like the jaws of a fish, Meyer is awakening associations with the biblical account of Jonah in the belly of the whale. Just as Jonah was heard by God and ejected again, and just as Christ arose again from the dead, the old fisherman with one hand holding a rosary and the other on his heart, weary not only after a long day at sea but also after a long life, is hoping for a life after death. With this associative leap, Meyer is crossing the borderline between genre painting and history painting, a move typical of the time. At the beginning of the 19th century, purchasers of history paintings, royalty and the Church, were under pressure. On the other hand, a bourgeois, liberal culture was in the ascendant, and with it came new demands for an art that was more democratic in seeking its motifs among ordinary people in the real world. As a result, genre painting began to compete with history painting, and by endowing genre painting with features of history painting, as Meyer does in A Capri Fisherman, an attempt was being made to raise it to a status that had previously been denied it.

Thorvaldsen was negotiating with Meyer on the purchase of A Capri Fisherman when death came to him in 1844. So it is an obvious conclusion that the aged and enfeebled Thorvaldsen was able to identify with the old fisherman in the cave and the picture’s Christian message of a life after death.

Last updated 29.03.2018