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Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770—1844) Danish neoclassical sculptor


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Bertel Thorvaldsen


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(b Copenhagen, 13 Nov. 1768 or 19 Nov. 1770; d Copenhagen, 24 Mar. 1844).

Danish sculptor, active mainly in Rome, next to Canova the most celebrated sculptor of the Neoclassical movement. The second date given above is the one on which Thorvaldsen himself believed he was born, and is generally accepted, but there is some evidence to support the first one. He studied at the Academy in his native Copenhagen, where he won a scholarship to Italy. In 1797 he reached Rome and henceforth regarded the day of his arrival (8 March) as his ‘Roman birthday’. He made his name with the statue Jason (1802–3, Thorvaldsens Mus., Copenhagen), which was based on the Doryphoros of Polyclitus, and his growing reputation resulted in so many commissions that by 1820 he had 40 assistants in his Roman workshop. In that year, on a visit to Copenhagen, he began planning the sculptural decoration of the newly built church of Our Lady, including marble statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles, and this project occupied him intermittently until 1842. His other major works include the tomb of Pius VII in St Peter's, Rome (1824–31), and a monument to Lord Byron (1829–35, Trinity College, Cambridge). He also produced numerous portrait busts. In 1838 he returned finally to Denmark, a celebrity whose authority in the arts was sovereign. A museum was built in his honour in Copenhagen (1839–48), itself a remarkable piece of neo-antique architecture; his tomb is in the courtyard. In addition to his own sculptures, the museum contains works he collected, including pictures by contemporary painters (notably the Nazarenes) as well as antiquities.

Thorvaldsen aimed at reviving the sublimity of Greek sculpture, but he never went to Greece and (in common with other artists of his time) based his knowledge mainly on late Hellenistic or Roman copies. He did, however, gain close familiarity with Greek sculpture from the restorations he made to the recently excavated sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia in Aegina, which in 1816 passed through Rome on their way to Munich (they are now in the Glyptothek there). Compared with Canova he is cool and calculating: his sculptures are more logically worked out and have great precision and clarity, but they lack Canova's sensitive surfaces. According to the taste of the time, his work has been praised for its nobility and classical calm or dismissed as frigid and empty.

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