The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Thorvaldsen and Raphael

  • Chris Fischer,, 2008
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    Chris Fischer: ‘Thorvaldsen and Raphael’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 2008, p. 10-42.

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


Thorvaldsen and Raphael

Thorvaldsen shared his contemporaries’ love for Raphael. He owned 16 books on the artist and many prints of his works, and he had a drawing of the Madonna, which at that time was thought to be by Raphael, hanging over his bed. It is significant that Thorvaldsen’s drawing was in a style relating to Raphael’s youthful work, for it was primarily Raphael’s early works which were venerated by the circle of artists and scholars that Thorvaldsen frequented after his arrival in Rome in 1797. Among these artists were the Nazarenes, who were so obsessed with Raphael’s early works that no matter the date of the prototype they followed, whether it was the Stanze-inspired frescoes in the Casino Massimo, Führich’s paraphrase of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes or Schnorr von Carolfeld’s pastiche of the Burning o f the Borgo, it was transposed into an idiom in which the influence of the young Raphael was predominant. Ingres, who lived at the same address as Thorvaldsen was also obsessed with Raphael, but he was more interested in Raphael’s post-Florentine works. And he copied Raphael into his paintings in a much more sophisticated manner than the Nazarenes. His method is most clearly revealed in his Vow of Louis XIII which formed the climactic point in Ingres’ life. The painting is a despairing synthesis of Raphaelesque motifs put together in a scissors and paste manner with no feeling for the flow and rhythm which are the primary devices of Raphael’s unrivalled skill as a storyteller. The Renaissance master still believed in a coherent and harmonious picture of the world, but by the end of the century this perception had been splintered and Ingres inadvertently responded to the spirit of his own times, his segmented working method being a reflection of this.

Thorvaldsen shared Ingres’ interest in Raphael’s post-Florentine works, but in contrast to his French and German colleagues, he understood the spirit behind Raphael’s figures and compositions. The balance and ease combined with restrained and introspected thoughtfulness which are hallmarks of so many of Thorvaldsen’s statues – such as the 1803 version of Ganymede and the Cupid and Psyche – seem to stem from

Raphael’s Farnesina frescoes, which Thorvaldsen copied immediately after his arrival to Rome. The 1803-version of Ganymede and his Cupid and Psyche for instance are clearly based on Raphael’s fresco of Mercury reaching the cup of immortalizing Ambrosia to Psyche as she enters Olympus.
There are several other examples of Thorvaldsen drawing inspiration from the Farnesina vault. One of the more sophisticated is his relief of Cupid and Anacreon in which the touching relationship between the draped old poet and the naked young god has been taken from Raphael’s depiction of Jupiter and Cupid. It is interesting to note that Thorvaldsen, who had a relief in mind, avoided the diagonal foreshortening necessary to Raphael in his desire to create an illusion of celestial space, and that Thorvaldsen also peeled off the sentimentalism which later restorers had added to Raphael’s fresco in order to capture the mood that the master had originally intended. It is the distillation of elements like these that contribute to the overall feeling of a unifying rhythm and of compositions from which no element could be distracted without making it fall apart.
From the self portrait statue in which Thorvaldsen, hammer and chisel in hand, is leaning on the archaic statue of Hope, we understand that, like Raphael, Thorvaldsen did not see himself as a genius struggling with the creative process, the way the Romantics regarded themselves, but as an artisan such as the artists were seen in Renaissance society. He has portrayed himself as one with his work and one with tradition, as part of a continuity. His spirit was more closely related to that of the Renaissance than to the incoherent spirit of the modern age, and that is probably the reason why he was so successful when he introduced inspiration from Raphael into his works.

Last updated 11.05.2017