The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Thorvaldsens Museum. The Cultural, Social, and Political Context, Including its Reception by the Press

  • Erik Mortensen,, 1998
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    Erik Mortensen: ‘Thorvaldsens Museum. The Cultural, Social, and Political Context, Including its Reception by the Press’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 1998, p. 169-175.

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


Thorvaldsens Museum can be explained as the result of efforts during the Enlightenment. Public museums as well as public exhibitions and criticism in a free press were to nurture the enterprise of the independent artist and a new bourgeoisie that was eager to acquire knowledge of the fine arts and willing to buy.

The importance of art and the right attitude to it was demonstrated in the holiest of holies or temple, Thorvaldsens Museum: the solemn entrance, the entire »Gesamtkunstwerk« represented by everything about it – architecture, decoration, furniture, and Thorvaldsen’s works, displayed in a variety of halls, small rooms and galleries. With the opening of the Museum, the citizens of Copenhagen could enjoy the works of a great European and Danish artist, not in the castle of some king or in some nobleman’s gallery, but in a public museum belonging to the city of Copenhagen, a house of the arts financed by ordinary citizens, the works the gift of the artist. In an atmosphere of »laboremus pro patria«, the man in the street could see with his own eyes that it was possible for a man of humble birth to rise and become the equal of popes and princes. The leading personalities who made the project possible were pioneers in the struggle for free speech, convinced democrats who, to varying degrees, were in opposition to the king and the establishment, and by birth members of the bourgeoisie or petite bourgeoisie. Intellectuals such as the art historian N. L. Høyen, the botanist L. A. Schouw and the theologian H. N. Clausen had in common an idealised conception of the people and a nationalist way of thinking. Fine arts were an educative means to make people conscious of their heritage, of the beauty of Denmark and of the essential morality of the Danish character.

All these ideas were emphasised in the lively debate in the 1830s and early 1840s. Then came 1848, with the citizens of Copenhagen marching to the Royal Palace, the appointment of a new government and the rebellion in Schleswig-Holstein.

In 1848, the Museum was officially opened with a solemn speech by H. N. Clausen which was recorded in the National Liberal newspaper Fædrelandet, the only paper to comment on the occasion at any length. Indirectly, he points to certain matters of dispute. The concept of the “pantheon” (i.e. a combination of museum and mausoleum) was southern European. In the Protestant north, Thorvaldsen’s grave at the centre of the complex required comment and a lengthy explanation on the part of the theologian Clausen. Even more interesting is the repeated emphasis on the greatness of Thorvaldsen, his art and his career as examples for all time.

A likely explanation is that in 1848 the fifteen-year-old Museum concept was no longer a cultural or political issue. Time had left it behind, and most important of all, Thorvaldsen’s Neo-Classical art was old-fashioned in the eyes of the intellectuals and artists who were setting the trend. Half-realistic, half-romanticised pictures from the war, done by painters at the front were of far greater interest. A more realistic art was in command, although it was a realism incorporating the well-known idealistic concept of the people as picturesque, hard-working and maybe a little simple minded.

Last updated 19.09.2019