MEMOIR OF THORVALDSEN, THE SCULPTOR
Albert Thorvaldsen was born at Copenhagen in 1771, or 1772. His parents were in very narrow circumstances. His father, a native of Iceland, was a stone-mason; and supported himself and his family very scantily by this occupation. Albert, from his earliest childhood, delighted in assisting his father at work; and, with much ingenuity, imitated the ornaments which he made of wood. The father, who soon saw that his son would become something more than a mere stone-mason, made him attend the lessons in drawing which are given gratis in the Academy of Arts.
The young artist now began to design with the other pupils, and attracted the notice of his masters, though never remarkable for diligence. But his fondness for modeling soon distinguished him more particularly; and in a short period he was rewarded by the Academy with several small premiums.
Albert grew up without any systematic education. In his seventeenth year he made his first attempt to gain one of the smaller prize medals, given for the modeling of a bas relief. The practice is to lock the pupils up in a particular room, where they are left entirely to their own genius. Thorvaldsen went to obtain this his first triumph with the terrors of a criminal sentenced to death; and even now, at the zenith of his fame, he cannot reflect without a kind of comic terror on what he then felt, and how he was obliged to screw his courage to the sticking-place by a good draught from the northern hippocrene, which for the poor lad consisted only of brandy. In the course of four hours he happily completed his work. The subject proposed was: – Heliodorus, or the Robbery of the Temple. He succeeded so compleatly in this task, that he astonished his judges, and obtained, not only the prize for which he had laboured, but also the great gold medal, to which is attached an allowance for travelling to Italy to study for a certain number of years. The enjoyment of the latter was withheld from him for a time, as the professors did not deem it advisable to send so inexperienced a youth into the world, abandoned to his own discretion. He therefore received for the present the prizes, and his masters beheld with delight how he improved more and more every day. The celebrated Danish historical painter, Abillgaard, conceived a marked affection for him; and among the nobility, his excellency the Privy Counsellor Christian Reverentlow especially noticed him, and encouraged his rising talent.
After Thorvaldsen had completed several successful works of art in his native country, he at last departed about the twenty-fourth year of his age (1797), for Italy, in a royal frigate, which was bound for Naples. On the voyage he was in great danger, but at last happily reached Naples. The young artist, however, quite unacquainted with the world, and ignorant of every other but his native tongue, felt himself quite forlorn in this paradise of nature and of art. The longing after home, which seizes almost every young Danish traveller, rendered him insensible to every charm which this country presented; and he was so near to despair, that had not shame restrained him, he would have returned with the same frigate to his beloved country, without having seen Rome, the Apollo Belvidere, the Laocoon, and the Tragic Muse. He was therefore obliged to depart for Rome. Here he wandered for a year and a half, as if in a dream, among the statues of gods and heroes; and in the contemplation of so many masterpieces of art, was unable to produce any thing of importance.
But soon the mist which seemed to envelope his mental faculties, was dispelled. The Roman ladies began to notice and to encourage the characteristically handsome northern visionary. Towards the end of his second year’s stay in Rome, he began to model, to cast and to destroy again. His celebrated and learned countryman, George Zoega, who perceived his great genius, paid much attention to him; and though he was his most intimate friend, he was at the same time his most rigorous judge. The young northern Phidias found in him an impartial critic, who never gave way when he had reason to blame. Sometimes he would say to him, “the ancients would not have done this;” and once he said, “No woman of character in ancient times, much less a goddess, ever dressed in this manner,” on seeing a Pallas by our artist, where a fold in the drapery appeared less decorous: and the artist struggling to reach the ideal, he knocked off the heads of his statues, and destroyed works which would even then have conferred celebrity.
Still the eyes of the connoisseurs had not yet been attracted to him; and even when he had finished that master-piece of art the Leader of the Argonauts, Jason, it happened that Thorvaldsen being in the company of about thirty or forty artists, with whom he usually dined, was asked “whether he knew the young Danish artist who had made this noble statue?” In this manner did our artist labour in modest retirement; so that it was not even known who was the author of this work.
Mr. Hope of Amsterdam, so well known as a liberal patron of the arts, was at that time in Rome. He visited Thorvaldsen, saw his Jason (which was then only cast in plaster) and bespoke it in marble. Immediately after this work Thorvaldsen modeled a great bass relief, the subject of which was chosen from the First Book of the Iliad, where Agamemnon causes the heralds Talthybias and Eurybates to lead Briseis out of the tent of Achilles. This work likewise attracted the attention of the most competent judges. With rapid steps he now advanced towards perfection in his art, while his reputation daily extended.
But his spirited progress was cheeked in the years 1804 and 5, when he was attacked by a very serious and tedious illness. The physicians despaired of his recovery; his friends feared that he would be snatched from them, and without doubt he would have been lost to the arts, had not the noblest friendship rescued him. Thorvaldsen hurried to Tuscany and found in the house of the Danish Ambassador, Chamberlain Von Schubart, that care and rest of which he stood so much in need.
In the year 1808 he produced two works, which established his fame on a permanent basis. His Colossal Mars and his Adonis will form an epoch in the history of modern art. The connoisseurs, on seeing his Adonis, were transported with delight, and said: “questo da vero é un uomo divino.” Among these was also the celebrated Antonio Canova, who declared this work to be the most beautiful and successful of Thorvaldsen’s: “Finalmente questa statua (said he) e lavorate in uno stile nobile e pure graziozo, e pieno di sentimento.”
In the winter of 1809, Thorvaldsen again received orders from home, for he had before sent many of his works to Copenhagen. His Majesty the King of Denmark wished to have the entrance of the newlybuilt palace of Christiansburg ornamented with four bas reliefs of his work, and these he completed to universal satisfaction.
Among the numerous works of this great artist, whom many esteem equal to Canova, may be mentioned his Three Graces, which exceed in delicacy every thing of the kind before seen or conceived. His Allegory on Day and Night, and his Mercury, are the delight of the lovers of art. The Duke Augustenburgh has bought his Graces and Mercury. His Entrance of Alexander the Great into Babylon, which was ordered by Napoleon, to be executed in bas relief, for a public edifice in Milan, has been purchased on the recommendation of the Hereditary Prince Christian, as it is said, for Four Thousand Guineas, by the King of Denmark, for the palace of Christiansburg.
Foreign nations, the Poles, the Swiss, have chosen Thorvaldsen to decide on the erection of their national monuments. A medal has been struck at Rome, in his honour, on which his head is extremely like. Fifteen men are employed in his Atelier, but he is engaged to execute works which will fully employ all his life. He is afflicted with a pain in the chest, and his life is now chiefly dedicated to his king and his country, to adorn the palace of the Danish kings with works of art. Among these are the Candelabras, which stood in the Temple of Jupiter at Athens, and which he has executed after the description of Pausanias.
He left Rome a few months ago, to pay a visit to his own country, after an absence of so many years. On his journey through Switzerland and Germany he was every where received with the greatest esteem. Apartments were prepared for him in the Academy of Arts at Copenhagen. He has brought with him from the Duchess of Devonshire, as a present to her son Mr. Foster, the English Ambassador in Copenhagen, one of the finest specimens of Typography, which the Duchess has published in Italy at her expense. It is a splendid edition of the Journey of Horace, in which views of all the places through which Horace travelled, are engraved by the best artists of Italy.
Thorvaldsen it not married. His head resembles that of a statue; but his features beam with intelligence, and his frank and open manners gain the affection of all who know him. He possesses a real genius for music, and plays the guitar with peculiar expression and skill. His society is extremely agreeable, for his feelings and sense of propriety are so very refined, that we might fancy he had constantly frequented the most polished circles, instead of having been confined for almost three and twenty years to his Atelier at Rome; his wit is striking and keen; his judgment upon works of art is severe, as becomes an artist who has the highest perfection in view.
Thorvaldsen hopes to return to Rome in the spring; engravings of his principal works are publishing at Frankfort. We have seen some of the plates representing his Entry of Alexander into Babylon, and some sepulchral monuments, which give a high idea of the originals, and do great credit to the engravers.