Bertel Thorvaldsen

During the early 19th century, Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1848) was considered the greatest sculptor in Europe. A student of classical art, he incorporated the styles of ancient Greece and Rome into his own work. In doing so, he became one of the leaders of the Neoclassical movement, which spanned the 18th and 19th centuries.

Born in Denmark

Bertel Thorvaldsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on November 13, 1770. He was the son of Gottskalk Thorvaldsen, an Icelandic woodcarver, and Karen Dagnes (GrØnlund). His father was something of a failed artist and he drank heavily. However, Gottskalk's habits or lack of success did not have a negative impact on the young Bertel. Determined to avoid the fate of his father, Thorvaldsen decided that he would become a great sculptor.

Pursuing his ambition, Thorvaldsen gained entrance into the finest art schools of his time. His formal artistic training began at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School, where he studied freehand drawing. In 1796 he entered the Copenhagen Academy of Fine Arts, and a year later went to Rome, Italy, on a scholarship. The move would have enormous impact on his life, as Italy provided the kind of academic environment that spurred his growth as an artist. He soon began developing his own style, basing it on classical sculpture, which proved to be his greatest inspiration.

Influenced by Ancient Artists

Thorvaldsen remained in Rome until 1838, then returned to his homeland to teach for intermittent periods. Although he would never marry, while residing in Rome Thorvaldsen fathered two children with Anna Maria Magnani: a son, Carlo Alberto (1806-1811) and a daughter, Elisa (1813-1846). In his early years in that city, Thorvaldsen was able to study examples of classical art up close. Influenced by the ancient works as well as by the contemporary neoclassicists, he came to hold the ancient Greco-Roman sculptors in high regard, believing that they were the only sculptors who had achieved purity of formal beauty without respect to content. Like these artists he took many of his subjects from ancient literature and mythology; also like them he attempted to recreate the human form in sculpture with clear outlines, smooth surfaces, pleasing proportions, and idealized facial features. He believed that imitation of ancient classical works of art was the best way to become a great artist. The strategy worked for Thorvaldsen; he soon joined Italian sculptor Antonio Canova as of the major artists of the Neoclassical movement.

Neoclassical Movement

The Neoclassical art movement embraced the values of the art of ancient Greece and Rome, and its emergence was a reaction to the previous, more fanciful Rococo and Baroque styles. It was part of the larger, overall movement that revived neoclassical thought and included writing, painting, and philosophy. Influential German art historian Johann J. Winckelmann helped initiate the art movement when he identified the most important elements of classical works: the noble stillness and simplicity and the calm grandeur. Neoclassical sculptors were also inspired by the excavation of the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Rome, which began in 1748 and provided the world with the opportunity to rediscover classical works. Neoclassical artists sought to capture the quality of these works by copying the ancient artists' styles and subject matter. Like these artists, neoclassical-inspired sculptors strived for a purity of form, creating idealized figures in white marble that possessed a severity of structure and clear, hard contours.

The Neoclassical movement lasted from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. At first, Canova was the leading neoclassical sculptor, but Thorvaldsen would eventually emerge as Canova's recognized peer. By 1808 the Danish sculptor began to receive recognition as a great artist, and after Canova's death he became recognized as the greatest living sculptor in Europe and the pre-eminent neoclassical artist.

Like other neoclassical artists, Thorvaldsen produced most of his works in white marble. These included relief sculptures, monuments, and portrait busts. His fidelity to the classical style was revealed in his early works, including his Jason (1802-1823), depicting the adventurous figure of Greek mythology who traveled the seas with his Argonauts, and Janus (1803), the Roman god of gates and doors who possessed two faces looking in either direction. These works provided Thorvaldsen's artistic breakthrough and brought him international fame. The choice of subjects for one of his best-known works, Hebe, especially reflects his intent. In mythology Hebe was an attendant to Venus, the goddess of beauty, and she served as the cup bearer for the gods. Because she possessed pure beauty as well as everlasting youth, she proved an appropriate subject for Thorvaldsen. His most famous works are allegorical reliefs and statues of classical subjects. Other famous works include Venus with the Apple (1806) and Amor and Psiquis in the Sky (1807).

Opened a Workshop

It was Thorvaldsen's fame and demand for his work that helped advance Neoclassicism as a movement. As demand increased from around the world, he fulfilled many international commissions for clients who specifically asked for a work of art that exemplified the Neoclassical style. Many of the commissioned artworks he created included busts and statues of famous Europeans.

Thorvaldsen's artistic output during his lifetime was huge. He produced 550 sculptures, reliefs, and portrait busts. In 1797, with demand growing and his workload increasing, he felt compelled to establish an efficient studio workshop which employed the services of his pupils and assistants.

During this period, he produced works for his home country, including the decorative scheme of marble statues and reliefs for the new Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen that features a striking Christ figure. Thorvaldsen himself created the figures of Christ and St. Paul; the rest were made by his assistants from Thorvaldsen's models. Thorvaldsen also created works for clients throughout Europe. These include historical portrait sculptures of Pope Pius VII and Conradin, last of the Hohenstaufen, as well as the design for the world-famous memorial sculpture Lion of Lucerne (1819-1821) erected in Switzerland. This much-celebrated allegorical sculpture was created on the wall of what had once been a mine. It commemorates the destruction of the Swiss Guard during the storming of the Tuileries in Paris in 1792, near the close of the French Revolution. The fallen Swiss are memorialized as a dying lion. The most remarkable element of the Lion of Lucerne is the sad expression on the lion's face; American writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), when visiting Europe and observing the sculpture, remarked that it was "the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world." Thorvaldsen's students performed the actual carving of the stone.

Thorvaldsen was also greatly admired in Russia. For the Russian czar's court he created sculptures of Countess Elizabeth Ostermann-Tolstaya (1815) and Czar Alexander I (1820).

Thorvaldsen's artistic activities were not restricted to sculpture. He would also perform restorations, believing along with his contemporaries that restoration projects provided a rewarding creative process. One of his most famous projects involved restoring ancient Aeginetan marbles, a task he performed for Prince Louis of Bavaria.

By 1820 Thorvaldsen employed 40 assistants to help complete the commissions, and his workshop was a fascinating place, bustling with activity. When producing a sculpture, Thorvaldsen began with a plaster model. After the finished artwork was delivered to a client, this plastic model remained in the workshop. Thus, the facility was filled with many stunning figures, the number of which grew over the years. Eventually, the sculpture envisioned the creation of a museum where his work could be viewed by the public. This seed of an idea would eventually grow to fruition.

Returned to Denmark

Although Thorvaldsen spent most of his life in Rome where he lived from 1797 to 1838, he was also active in Copenhagen. He became professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1805 and directed the Academy from 1833 to 1844. He also served as a professor at Rome's St. Luca Academy in 1812, eventually becoming vice president (1826) and president (1827-1828) there.

When he returned permanently to Copenhagen to live in 1838, Thorvaldsen was welcomed home with great enthusiasm. By that time he was considered the greatest sculptor in Europe, and his countrymen regarded him as a national hero. In fact, his fame was so great that several of the era's most well-known painters chose him as a portrait subject, including Russian painter Orest Kiprensky, whose 1833 portrait of Thorvaldsen hangs in the museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. His renown spread across the sea as well, and many American sculptors traveled to Europe to study with Thorvaldsen.

Donated Works for Museum

Thorvaldsen's will bequeathed a large collection of his works—as well as collected works of other artists—to the city of Copenhagen. In 1839 the city began building a museum—appropriately designed in the neoclassical style—to house the aging sculptor's valuable collection.

Thorvaldsen had first broached the idea of the remarkable bestowment in 1827, in a letter to Danish Crown Prince Christian Frederik (eventually King Christian VIII). The idea was then taken to King Frederik VI, who was asked if Denmark would be willing to build a museum for the collections if Thorvaldsen decided to donate. The king took the idea to the people and, later, initiated a fundraising campaign. The idea moved forward in 1830, when Thorvaldsen drew up his first will, a document that bestowed parts of his collections to Denmark.

A national appeal for money was started in 1837, to raise money for the museum construction. The Danish people responded enthusiastically and their support funded the project. A year later, when Thorvaldsen returned to Copenhagen after living in Rome, King Frederik VI designated a site for the envisioned museum adjacent to the Christiansborg Palace. The Royal Coach House, which stood on the proposed site, was to be rebuilt to accommodate Thorvaldsen's collections. A building committee was appointed, which included four architects who designed the basic elements of the reconstruction, and work began in 1839. Architect Michael Gottlieb BindesbØll was appointed to lead the project, which took almost a decade to complete. The Thorvaldsen's Museum finally opened on September 18, 1848, the first museum to be built in Denmark.

The museum includes the original plaster models of Thorvaldsen's sculptures, the original design sketches, and many original pieces of his artwork, including his Self Portrait (1839). It also includes many priceless items that Thorvaldsen amassed over the years, including his extensive collection of paintings, drawings, engravings, antiques, and books.

Died in Birth City

Thorvaldsen passed away in Copenhagen on March 24, 1848, reportedly while attending the theater. He died only a week after his museum opened, at age 68. His funeral was held in the Cathedral Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, and his coffin was eventually interred in the inner courtyard of the Thorvaldsen Museum.

During his lifetime, Thorvaldsen was a member of a large number of academies of fine arts, societies, and associations throughout Europe, Russia, and the United States. He became a member of the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1805 and the St. Luca Academy in 1808. He also was named a Citizen of Honor in Mainz in 1835, in Copenhagen in 1838, and in Stuttgart in 1841.


Plon, Eugene, Thorvaldsen: His Life and Works, R. Bently & Son, 1874.

Thiel, Just Mathias, Thorvaldsen and His Works, J. G. Unnevehr, 1869.


"Bertel Thorvaldsen, Danish Sculptor," (December 27, 2002).

" 'Hebe' by Thorvaldseon," (February 10, 2003).

"Thorvaldsen—Life and Work," (February 10, 2003).