This post is adapted from the forthcoming Guides Who Know app on Central Park.
- Sculptor: Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen (self-portrait)
- Date: Original marble 1839; this copy in bronze created 1892, dedicated in Central Park in 1894
- Medium & size: Bronze, lifesize; on granite pedestal with two medallions in bronze
- Location: Central Park, on a wooded hill just north of where the 96th Street traverse meets Fifth Avenue
Some works of art seem to make an instant leap from your eyes to your emotions … and then there’s Thorvaldsen. To react to this sculpture, you have to know something about the man it represents.
Bertel Thorvaldsen was born in Copenhagen around 1770. His father, who hailed from Iceland, carved wooden decorations for ships. Young Bertel showed such talent for sculpting that at age 11, he was sent off to study art. Eventually he won a scholarship to study in Rome.
Then as now, Rome was a treasure-trove of art, with masterpieces from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But the dominant style since around 1600 had been the Baroque. Baroque art is exuberantly larger than life in its gestures, colors, drama, and grandeur. But after a couple centuries, Rome had so much of it that its impact was lost.
In the 1780s, Antonio Canova’s “Neoclassical” style turned sculpture in a new direction: toward the simplicity of ancient Greek and Roman art. (If you’ve read last week’s posts on Art and History, 1801-1806 and 1807-1815, a couple of these will be familiar.)
Thorvaldsen, arriving in Rome in 1797, fell in love with the new style. After Canova died in 1822, Thorvaldsen was the most popular sculptor in Rome. Tourists, even popes, made pilgrimages to his studio. Princes and kings, poets and politicians throughout Europe were grateful if Thorvaldsen agreed to sculpt their portraits.
Thorvaldsen also created hundreds of other works, ranging from a moving memorial to the Swiss Guards who died defending Louis XVI of France to a pair of small, exquisite medallions of Night and Day.
In 1838, Thorvaldsen returned to his native Denmark, where he received a hero’s welcome. Friends begged the 70-year-old to sculpt a self-portrait. The Baroness von Stampe even built him an atelier so he could work on it. When he still refused, she turned on the tears. So Thorvaldsen buckled down and modeled the life-size work in 17 days. He shows himself supported by Hope, a copy of a work he had created 20 years earlier. And he looks as he would have in his early years in Rome: a young sculptor in working dress of leggings and tunic, holding a chisel and mallet.
This bronze copy of Thorvaldsen’s self-portrait was on display at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago. The Danish citizens of New York purchased it and presented it to Central Park. In accordance with Park policy of placing portrait sculptures near gates with appropriate names, Thorvaldsen was originally dedicated on Central Park South, between the Artists’ and Artisans’ Gates.
- The Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen has casts of many of Thorvaldsen’s sculptures. (On their home page as I write this is a photo of the original marble Thorvaldsen.) Thorvaldsen is buried in the courtyard.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art has several small works by Thorvaldsen (search “Bertel Thorvaldsen”) and a copy of Vernet’s portrait of Thorvaldsen. Which do you like better, this one or the bronze in Central Park?