ART. IX. – Den Danske Billedhugger BERTEL THORVALDSEN, og hans Værker. Ved J. M. Thiele, Professor, Secretair ved det Kongelige Akademie for de skiønne Kunster. Første Deel, med 81 Kobbertavle. Kiøbenhavn. (The Danish Sculptor Thorvaldsen,* and his Works. By J. M. Thiele, Professor, Secretary to the Royal Academy of the Fine Arts. Vol. I. with 81 Engravings. Copenhagen.) 8vo. 1832.
IT does not often fall to our lot to derive from a work sent for our notice, so much gratification as, under various points of view, we have received from this of Professor Thiele. In the first place we greet with pleasure every biographical notice of remarkable men; and in that chapter of the book of Fame which is dedicated to the fine arts, what living name can compete with Thorvaldsen’s? Perhaps, we might exchange the epithet “living” for that of “modern”; for we believe none but Italians now even question the Danish artist’s superiority to Canova himself: but we wish to waive for the moment all comparison of those two worthy successors of the great Hellenic masters, inasmuch as such discussion will find a more appropriate place when we shall have gone through the volume before us. To return to the cause of our gratification from the said volume, (or rather volumes, for there is one of letter-press and one of engravings,) – we are highly pleased with the talent displayed by Danish artists in the engravings, which present us with outlines of some of Thorvaldsen’s best statues and bas-reliefs; we are delighted with such a proof, as the undertaking itself, and the list of subscribers to it, exhibit, of Danish enthusiasm for compatriot genius; and we rejoice that those lovers of the arts who are not free to roam over Europe in search of the widely dispersed productions of Thorvaldsen, should be afforded some means of estimating his merits and the character of those productions.
Our anticipations of biographical enjoyment, however, we must confess Professor Thiele has not fully realized. With the exception of the artist’s genealogy and a few anecdotes of his boyish days, the life consists of little more than an account of his works, and the order in which they were undertaken and executed. We learn nothing of his manners, of his domestic and daily habits, and almost the only trait of character occurs in the preface, when the author explains how he came to write his book. We will not however waste our pages with complaints of what we think wanting in the Professor’s volume, – a deficiency which, by the way, the second volume may perhaps supply, – but proceed to give our readers a brief abstract of what it does contain.
Professor Thiele, as he tells us in his preface, was a constant frequenter of Thorvaldsen’s studio during a visit to Rome. At length he was about to return home, and says: –
“One of my last days at Rome I passed in the little garden which is surrounded by Thorvaldsen’s three lesser studios, in order to enrich my book of recollections with the image of a place so dear to me. Unexpectedly the artist stood behind me, and of his own accord led the conversation to the object then nearest my heart. ‘I regret,’ said Thorvaldsen, ‘that no one has yet thought of my biography.’ And at these words I was seized with the idea, which, for the six following years, pursued me amidst my dearest labours. I declared that I would gladly devote the requisite time, and such abilities as were given me, to the fulfilling in some measure of his and my own wish, upon condition, however, of his frank communication and assistance to my work. But here difficulties already met me. He averred that he knew but little, the occupations of his later life having year by year drawn the veil closer over the unimportant occurrences of his quiet youth; neither could his now engaged thoughts busy themselves with such matters; but I might apply to the friends of his youth.”
From that source, the archives of the Copenhagen Academy, and what could be in any way extorted from Thorvaldsen himself, Professor Thiele has concocted the short account, of which we are about to extract the pith and marrow.
From an annexed genealogical table, it appears that Thorvaldsen descends by females from the royal blood of Scandinavia. His family had long been settled in Iceland, and in that Ultima Thule his ancestors had gradually sunk lower and lower in circumstances, until his father, Gotskalk Thorvaldsen, emigrated or immigrated to Copenhagen, where he earned his livelihood by carving in wood, and that not in the highest style. He appears to have been chiefly employed by shipwrights, and not to have ventured to attempt the figures that usually ornament a vessel’s head, until his son was able to assist him by correcting his blunders. But despite this his lowly condition, Gotskalk married the daughter of a clergyman, who, on the 19th of November, 1770, bore him a son christened Bertel, the Scandinavian form of Albert.
The boy early discovered a turn for sketching and modelling, in consequence of which he was admitted as a student into the Copenhagen Royal Academy of Fine Arts. His progress through the different schools was rapid. His father, as we have said, rose in his occupation by his son’s aid; and in the year 1787 Bertel won the lowest prize of the academy, the small silver medal. At this period he was preparing for the church ceremony of confirmation, and, engrossed by his professional pursuits, had perhaps not devoted much time or thought to religious duties.
“According to his own account, he sat low down amongst the poorer boys, and did not particularly distinguish himself by his knowledge. But, as it happened, the examining clergyman was brother to the Secretary of the Academy. Upon hearing the boy’s name, he became attentive, asked, ‘Are you a brother of him who won the silver medal ?’ – and when Thorvaldsen replied, ‘That was myself!’ the clergyman was so surprised at the answer, that he placed him above the other boys, and thenceforward called him Monsieur Thorvaldsen.”
In 1789 our young student won the larger silver medal, and in 1791 the small gold medal, upon which occasion we have a striking instance of his innate modesty. Notwithstanding his previous success, the idea of the contest for this gold medal, given for the best historical bas-relief, so alarmed Thorvaldsen, that not only did it require the utmost importunity of his friends and companions to induce him to present himself amongst the competitors, but even after the subject was given out, and the candidates were separately locked up to prepare their sketches, he attempted to make his escape, and was only prevented by accidentally meeting one of his masters. In 1793 he similarly, but without compulsion, won the larger gold medal, in a contest of the same kind. The three prize bas-reliefs, which are still preserved at Copenhagen, are given amongst the engravings, and even in these early efforts we may perceive the germ of future excellence. The subjects are boldly conceived, and the stories well told.
The successful candidate for these prizes was further entitled to be sent for three years to Rome at the academy’s expense. But for this invaluable boon our young artist had to wait until the student, then enjoying the allowance, should have completed his term; and in the interval he continued to study hard, whilst he earned his livelihood by teaching drawing and taking likenesses.
Thorvaldsen had proposed to visit Dresden and Vienna in his way, as if to prepare himself gradually for the miracles of art awaiting him at Rome. But the disturbed state of the continent in 1796, when he was to set forth, together with his own delicate health, induced his friends to recommend a sea voyage in preference. He embarked in a Danish frigate, and after a (to him) tedious cruize, landed at Naples, without having set foot in Germany. A fact which we notice merely to correct a mistake made by Madame de Staël in her Allemagne, where she enriches wealthy Germany at the expense of humbler Denmark. These are her expressions, and we insert the whole passage to remind our readers of the high estimate formed of Thorvaldsen by so able a judge:
“A Dane, Thorvaldsen, educated in Germany, now rivals Canova at Rome; and his Jason resembles him whom Pindar describes as the handsomest of men; a fleece (why not the fleece?) is on his left arm, he holds a spear in his hand, and repose and force characterize the hero.”
Thorvaldsen reached the Eternal City on the 8th of March, 1797, and ever afterwards, when asked for his birthday, named that day as the epoch of his real entrance into existence. As such it was accepted by his friends, and has been frequently honoured with birthday celebration, instead of the common-place 19th of November.
We need only recollect the state of Europe during Thorvaldsen’s three years at Rome, beginning with 1797, to perceive that they were little likely to afford a young artist much encouragement. The continent was distracted, was desolated with war, and English wealth was sedulously excluded. Accordingly Thorvaldsen studied with unwearying diligence, copied antiques, and sent the Academy proofs of his industry and improvement, which last is strikingly manifest in the very first of his Roman compositions; but he earned nothing, hardly even reputation, we believe. In consequence of the unfavourable circumstances of his allotted term, he solicited and obtained two additional years. But these likewise elapsed without pecuniary advantage, although in the course of them he produced the model of the Jason, eulogized by Madame de Staël, and which seems first to have established his fame. This model gained the approbation of the most critical connoisseurs, and won from Canova, then at the height of unrivalled celebrity, the acknowledgment, “this work of that young Dane is executed in a new and grand style.” But Thorvaldsen, though crowned with praise, found his purse empty, and a second model of Jason was in danger of sharing the fate of a former, which he had broken in despair. The first assistance he received was from a countrywoman of his own, an admired poetess, Madame Brun, then at Rome. This lady supplied him with means to take a plaster of Paris cast of Jason, but more she could not do for him; and he was about to abandon Rome in despair for Copenhagen, when, the peace of Amiens having temporarily opened the Continent to British travellers, the late Mr.* Thomas Hope entered Thorvaldsen’s studio.
Mr. Hope, the possessor of a magnificent statue gallery, was too familiar with the exquisite remains of Hellenic sculpture, not to be struck with the lofty excellence of the Jason, and he inquired what would be the price of the statue in marble. The artist, who at that moment had scarcely an object in life beyond the power of thus executing his splendid conception, answered 600 sequins. The generous and just appreciator of genius objected that the sum was too small for such a production, offered 800, and immediately supplied Thorvaldsen with the means of going to work. War broke out again before the Jason was completed, and, from apprehension of danger in working for a Briton, he was neglected. When the pacification of the world upon Napoleon’s downfall[l] removed these difficulties, Thorvaldsen felt himself so much improved that he wished to have substituted for Jason some later production; but as Mr. Hope preferred his original purchase, he proceeded to finish it. When, in 1828, Jason was at length despatched to England, he was accompanied, in token of the artist’s gratitude, by two beautiful bas-reliefs – a genio lumen, and an Anacreon and Cupid – together with busts of Mrs. Hope and her daughters.
Well might Thorvaldsen feel gratitude to his British patron, for Mr. Hope’s visit was the crisis of his fortune. From that moment, abundant employment and ample remuneration were his. His fame soared high and wide; he was the acknowledged rival of Canova; every academy was eager to enrol him amongst its members; honours of every kind poured in upon him, and his society was courted by the high-born, the wealthy, and the talented. We shall not follow our author through his detail of the works of the next ten years, which fills the remainder of his volume, but pass to Thorvaldsen’s grand bas-relief; perforce, however, pausing on our way to mention his first order from his northern home. This was a font, with which Countess Schimmelmann and her brother Baron Schubarth wished to present the church of Brahe-Trolleborg in Fyen, or Funen, as the name of the island is usually written in English. This font, adorned with four beautiful bas-reliefs, viz., the baptism of our Saviour, a Holy Family, Christ blessing the little children, and three hovering angels, was exhibited and duly valued at Copenhagen, and then sent to its appointed destination. A copy, wrought with equal care, was designed by the artist as his offering to the deserted land of his fathers, a gift to Myklabye church, in distant Iceland. We learn from a note, nevertheless, that this font did not, like its predecessor, reach its destination, having been purchased by a northern merchant, whereupon the artist immediately began another copy in Carrara marble to supply its place. We know not whether this third edition of the font actually adorns Myklabye church, or is, perchance, the one with which Lord Caledon has enriched the British empire.
We are now to speak of the magnificent frieze, upon which rests Thorvaldsen’s acknowledged supremacy in the bas-relief branch of statuary. Late in the autumn of 1811, Napoleon ordered a papal palace upon the Quirinal hill to be prepared for his reception against the month of May following. Great exertions were made by the Roman artists to complete the requisite decorations, but it was not until the beginning of March that a proposal was made to Thorvaldsen to contribute his share to the embellishments of the intended imperial residence. Three months only could be allowed him to complete his task. Short as was the period, he gladly undertook a frieze for one of the spacious saloons, and selected for its subject the triumphal entry of Alexander into Babylon. This is no place for a detailed description; but we may briefly state that the subject is divided into three sections, or series of groups; the first series representing the Babylonians in expectation of the conqueror’s triumphant approach; the second, the magi and great men going forth in procession with their offerings to meet and propitiate him; the third, Alexander attended by his army; and that the spirit, boldness, and freedom of the various groups, so far surpass all modem competition, that should we seek a comparison, we could only refer to the Elgin marbles, with which no modern artist aspires to rivalry. This frieze procured Thorvaldsen, from the Italians themselves, the title of Patriarch of Bas-Reliefs.
Thorvaldsen anxiously desired that his native land should possess a marble copy of this his master-piece, and Denmark cherished a corresponding wish. Financial difficulties delayed its gratification; but they were at length overcome, and in the course of the years 1829, 30, and 31, the frieze, with some additions, required by the greater size of of [sic] the hall for which this copy was intended, was completed in marble, and it is now, we believe, the glory of the Knights’ Hall in the castle of Christianborg. Another marble copy is in the Palazzo of Count Sommariva, upon the Lago di Como; and in this last Thorvaldsen has introduced a group, representing himself delivering the work to the Count. The head of this small figure bears a much stronger resemblance to the artist, than do the other busts and portraits amongst the engravings, but none of them give an idea of the commanding genius that lives in his eye, or of the sweetness and simplicity that characterize his rough features.
We have gone through Professor Thiele’s first volume, the only one that has reached us, or we believe yet seen the light, and should now proceed to speak of the opinions entertained by less partial and perhaps more adequate judges than our author, of the relative merits of Thorvaldsen and Canova; but the remarks and statements into which we have been already led leave us little to add. By way of peroration, however, and for the especial advantage of such unfortunate wights, if any such there be in these travelling times, as have had no opportunity of comparing the mighty masters of the north and of the south, we may as well put those scattered opinions into form. The Dane then is generally esteemed a truer imitator of nature, and far chaster in his taste than the Italian, who had some little taint of Gallic affectation, while Thorvaldsen is pure and simple, with a sense of the beautiful that is even pathetic. On the other hand, Thorvaldsen is held inferior to Canova in what is technically termed the manipulation of the marble; his flesh is not as perfect flesh; and, indeed, if the deceased pride of Italy had a rival in this respect, we suspect it is our own admired and admirable countryman Chantry. Bas-relief has been usually considered as Thorvaldsen’s peculiar forte; but Mr. Baring possesses a Mercury from his chisel, which may well dispute the prize with the renowned frieze itself, and render it doubtful in which branch of the plastic art he most transcends. This Mercury, for grace of attitude, truth of drawing, beauty of form and face, and indeed every other excellence that can belong to a statue, is allowed, we believe, by the unanimous verdict of artists and connoisseurs, to be the very finest production of modern genius. There are several other statues of Thorvaldsen’s in England, which, with this, will probably be celebrated by Thiele in a subsequent volume, and perhaps we ought to apologize for thus forestalling our author; but we confess we could not bring ourselves to conclude our observations relative to this great artist, without telling our readers that his master-piece adorns the dwelling of an English private gentleman.