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  • Monday 10.00 - 20.00
  • Tuesday 10.00 - 20.00
  • Wednesday 10.00 - 20.00
  • Thursday 10.00 - 20.00
  • Friday 08.00 - 23.00
  • Saturday 10.00 - 20.00
  • Sunday 10.00 - 20.00
Revered as Denmark's greatest classical sculptor, the legacy of this ‘citizen of honour’ lives on.

 

The son of an impoverished woodcarver, Bertel Thorvaldsen seemed an unlikely candidate for international renown. Yet the dashing Danish sculptor established himself as a leading talent in 19th-century Europe’s elitist circles, counted aristocrats as confidantes, and established Denmark’s first public museum. In the 250 years since his birth, Thorvaldsen’s legacy lives on, with visitors from around the world flocking to see his Neoclassical marble sculptures.

 

Born into a deeply hierarchical society in 1770, the young Thorvaldsen was confronted with a number of obstacles: a lack of connections, zero social status, and no familial wealth to rely upon. Aged 11, he was enrolled into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts; here, he was given formal training with the expectation that he would join the growing ranks of skilled craftsmen and artists who served the Danish King. Thorvaldsen had other plans, though – after winning a scholarship to spend three years in Rome, Thorvaldsen left behind the strait-laced conservatism and absence of artistic opportunity that governed his homeland. It would be 41 years before he returned to live there again.

Those wild decades in Rome proved fruitful. The Papal capital was a vibrant cultural epicenter, overflowing with Neoclassical artists, marble carvers, and deep-pocketed socialites keen to support artistic talent with their patronage. For the free-spirited Thorvaldsen, it was an intoxicating scene to enter; as a non-Catholic, he could remain unmarried, enjoy passionate affairs, and engage freely in heated debates at the city’s numerous cafes. There was only one downside to this atmosphere of freedom and excess: some artists were said to be so overwhelmed by the abundance of beautiful art and architecture that they became crippled with ‘Rom-Angst’ and were unable to work.

Thorvaldsen’s breakthrough sculpture, Jason with the Golden Fleece, was an apt subject matter for the fledgling artist. After being sent overseas to capture a golden ram fleece, Jason was expected to present it in order to assume his role as king. It was a quest that resonated with Thorvaldsen, whose own pursuits were underscored by the expectation that he prove his success to the Academy of Fine Arts with samples of the work he’d created in Rome. The resulting work – a towering sculpture that depicted Jason’s triumphant return to his kingdom, fleece in hand – was hailed as a masterpiece.

Even as Thorvaldsen’s fame and fortunes grew, he remained true to his values. Among friends, he was known as a cross-dressing bon vivant who once ended up dancing with a ham at a party in Rome. But he was also principled and unpretentious, once declining a dinner invitation with the Danish King because he’d already made plans. This sense of honesty can be seen in his sculptures, which possess a stripped-back aesthetic that contrast against the more dramatic works created by his Italian counterpart, Canova.

After many decades far from home, Thorvaldsen returned permanently to Copenhagen in 1838. His homecoming was met with joyful celebrations as well-wishers decided to unhitch the horses from his wagon so that they could draw it through the streets themselves. The woodcarver’s son was now a national hero.

Thorvaldsen cemented his stature with a gift for the Danish people. In his will, he bequeathed his entire collection of artworks – which included many of his original sculptures – to the city of Copenhagen. It was an unprecedented move. After a lifetime of creating sculptures for Europe’s wealthy and well-heeled, he’d returned home to share his spoils. Anyone, regardless of their status, was welcome to enjoy them.

Visit ILLUM and experience our unique Thorvaldsen-inspired Christmas decorations.

Editorial staff

Photographer: Hasse Nielsen