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It was in Copenhagen, on November 19, 1770, that a carver of figures for ships' heads, by name Gottskalk Thorwaldsen, was presented by his wife, Karen Groenlund, the daughter of a clergyman in Jutland, with a son, who at his baptism received the name of Bertel, or Albert.
The father had come from Iceland, and lived in poor circumstances. They dwelt in Lille Groennegade (Little Green Street), not far from the Academy of Arts. The moon has often peeped into their poor room; she has told us about it in "A Picture-book without Pictures":
"The father and mother slept, but their little son did not sleep; where the flowered cotton bed-curtains moved I saw the child peep out. I thought at first that he looked at the Bornholm clock, for it was finely painted with red and green, and there was a cuckoo on the top; it had heavy leaden weights, and the pendulum with its shining brass plate went to and fro with a 'tick! tick!' But it was not that he looked at; no, it was his mother's spinning-wheel, which stood directly under the clock; this was the dearest piece of furniture in the whole house for the boy; but he dared not touch it, for if he did, he got a rap over the fingers. While his mother spun, he would sit for hours together looking at the buzzing spindle and the revolving wheel, and then he had his own thoughts. Oh! if he only durst spin that wheel! His father and mother slept; he looked at them, he looked at the wheel, and then by degrees a little naked foot was stuck out of bed, and then another naked foot, then there came two small legs, and, with a jump, he stood on the floor. He turned round once more, to see if his parents slept; yes, they did, and so he went softly, quite softly, only in his little shirt, up to the wheel, and began to spin. The cord flew off, and the wheel then ran much quicker. His mother awoke at the same moment; the curtains moved; she looked out and thought of the brownie, or another little spectral being. 'Have mercy on us!' said she, and in her fear she struck her husband in the side; he opened his eyes, rubbed them with his hands, and looked at the busy little fellow. 'It is Bertel, woman,' said he."
What the moon relates we see here as the first picture in Thorwaldsen's life's gallery; for it is a reflection of the reality. Thorwaldsen has himself, when in familiar conversation at Nysoee, told the author almost word for word what he, in his "Picture-book," lets the moon say. It was one of his earliest remembrances, how he, in his little short shirt, sat in the moonlight and spun his mother's wheel, while she, dear soul, took him for a little spectre.
A few years ago there still lived an old ship-carpenter, who remembered the little, light-haired, blue-eyed boy, that came to his father in the carving-house at the dock-yard; he was to learn his father's trade; and as the latter felt how bad it was not to be able to draw, the boy, then eleven years of age, was sent to the drawing-school at the Academy of Arts, where he made rapid progress. Two years afterward, Bertel, or Albert, as we shall in future call him, was of great assistance to his father; nay, he even improved his work.
See the hovering ships on the wharves! The Dannebrog waves, the workmen sit in circle under the shade at their frugal breakfasts; but foremost stands the principal figure in this picture: it is a boy who cuts with a bold hand the lifelike features in the wooden image for the beak-head of the vessel. It is the ship's guardian spirit, and, as the first image from the hand of Albert Thorwaldsen, it shall wander out into the wide world. The eternally swelling sea should baptize it with its waters, and hang its wreaths of wet plants around it.
Our next picture advances a step forward. Unobserved among the other boys, he has now frequented the Academy's school for six years already, where, always taciturn and silent, he stood by his drawing-board. His answer was "yes" or "no," a nod or a shake of the head; but mildness shone from his features, and good-nature was in every expression. The picture shows us Albert as a candidate for confirmation. He is now seventeen years of age--not a very young age to ratify his baptismal compact; his place at the dean's house is the last among the poor boys, for his knowledge is not sufficient to place him higher. There had just at that time been an account in the newspapers, that the pupil Thorwaldsen had gained the Academy's smaller medal for a bas-relief representing a "Cupid Reposing." "Is it your brother that has gained the medal?" inquired the dean. "It is myself," said Albert, and the clergyman looked kindly on him, placed him first among all the boys, and from that time always called him Monsieur Thorwaldsen. Oh! how deeply did that "Monsieur" then sound in his mind! As he has often said since, it sounded far more powerfully than any title that kings could give him; he never afterward forgot it.
In a small house in Aabeuraa--the street where Holberg lets his poor poets dwell--lived Albert Thorwaldsen with his parents, and divided his time between the study of art and assisting his father. The Academy's lesser gold was then the prize to be obtained for sculpture. Our artist was now twenty years of age; his friends knew his abilities better than himself, and they compelled him to enter on the task. The subject proposed was, "Heliodorus Driven out of the Temple."
We are now in Charlottenburg; but the little chamber in which Thorwaldsen lately sat to make his sketch is empty, and he, chased by the demons of fear and distrust, hastens down the narrow back-stairs with the intention not to return. Nothing is accidental in the life of a great genius; an apparent insignificance is a God's guiding finger. Thorwaldsen was to complete his task. Who is it that stops him on the dark stairs? One of the professors just comes that way, speaks to him, questions, admonishes him. He returns, and in four hours the sketch is finished, and the gold medal won. This was on August 15, 1791.
Count Ditlew de Reventlow, minister of state, saw the young artist's work, and became his protector; he placed his own name at the head of a subscription that enabled Thorwaldsen to devote his time to the study of his art. Two years afterward the large gold medal was to be contended for at the Academy, the successful candidate thereby gaining the right to a travelling stipendium. Thorwaldsen was again the first; but before he entered on his travels, it was deemed necessary to extend that knowledge which an indifferent education at school had left him in want of. He read, studied, and the Academy gave him its support; acknowledgment smiled on him, a greater and more spiritual sphere lay open to him.
A portrait figure stands now before us; it is that of a Dane, the learned and severe Zoega, to whom the young artist is specially recommended, but who only sees in him a common talent; whose words are only those of censure, and whose eye sees only a servile imitation of the antique in his works. Strictly honest in his judgment, according to his own ideas, is this man, who should be Thorwaldsen's guide.
We let three years glide away after the arrival of Thorwaldsen, and ask Zoega what he now says of Albert, or, as the Italians call him, Alberto, and the severe man shakes his head and says: "There is much to blame, little to be satisfied with, and diligent he is not!" Yet he was diligent in a high degree; but genius is foreign to a foreign mind. "The snow had just then thawed from my eyes," he has himself often repeated. The drawings of the Danish painter Carstens formed one of those spiritual books that shed its holy baptism over that growing genius. The little atelier looked like a battle-field, for roundabout were broken statues. Genius formed them often in the midnight hours; despondency over their faults broke them in the day.
The three years, for which he had received a stipendium, were as if they had flown away, and as yet he had produced nothing. The time for his return drew nigh. One work, however, he must complete, that it might not with justice be said in Denmark, "Thorwaldsen has quite wasted his time in Rome." Doubting his genius just when it embraced him most affectionately; not expecting a victory, while he already stood on its open road, he modelled "Jason who has Gained the Golden Fleece." It was this that Thorwaldsen would have gained in the kingdom of arts, and which he now thought he must resign. The figure stood there in clay, many eyes looked carelessly on it, and--he broke it to pieces!
It was in April, 1801, that his return home was fixed, in company with Zoega. It was put off until the autumn. During this time "Jason" occupied all his thoughts. A new, a larger figure of the hero was formed, an immortal work; but it had not then been announced to the world, nor understood by it. "Here is something more than common!" was said by many. Even the man to whom all paid homage, the illustrious Canova, started, and exclaimed: "Quest' opera di quel giovane Danese e fatta in uno stilo nuovo, e grandioso!" Zoega smiled. "It is bravely done!" said he. The Danish songstress, Frederikke Brunn, was then in Rome and sang enthusiastically about Thorwaldsen's "Jason." She assisted the artist, so that he was enabled to get this figure cast in plaster; for he himself had no more money than was just sufficient for his expenses home.
The last glass of wine had been already drunk as a farewell, the boxes packed, and the vetturino's carriage was before the door at daybreak; the boxes were fastened behind. Then came a fellow-traveller--the sculptor, Hagemann, who was returning to his native city, Berlin. His passport was not ready. Their departure must be put off until the next day; and Thorwaldsen promised, although the vetturino complained and abused him, to remain so long. He stayed--stayed to win an immortal name on earth, and cast a lustre over Denmark.
Though forty years resident in Rome, rich and independent, he lived and worked with the thought of once returning home to Denmark, there to rest himself; unaccustomed to the great comforts of other rich artists in Rome, he lived a bachelor's life. Was his heart, then, no longer open to love since his first departure from Copenhagen? A thousand beautiful Cupids in marble will tell us how warmly that heart beat. Love belongs to life's mysteries.
We know that Thorwaldsen left a daughter in Rome, whose birth he acknowledged; we also know that more than one female of quality would willingly have given her hand to the great artist. The year before his first return to Denmark he lay ill at Naples, and was nursed by an English lady who felt the most ardent affection for him; and, from that feeling of gratitude which was awakened in him, he immediately consented to their union. When he had recovered and afterward returned to Rome, this promise preyed on his mind, he felt that he was not now formed to be a husband, acknowledged that gratitude was not love, and that they were not suited for each other; after a long combat with himself, he wrote and informed her of his determination. Thorwaldsen was never married.
The following trait is as characteristic of his heart as of his whole personality. One day, while in Rome, there came a poor countryman to him, an artisan, who had long been ill. He came to say farewell, and to thank him for the money that he and others of his countrymen had subscribed together, with which he was to reach home.
"But you will not walk the whole way?" said Thorwaldsen.
"I am obliged to do so," replied the man.
"But you are still too weak to walk--you cannot bear the fatigue, nor must you do it!" said he.
The man assured him of the necessity of doing so.
Thorwaldsen went and opened a drawer, took out a handful of scudi and gave them to him, saying, "See, now you will ride the whole way!"
The man thanked him, but assured him that his gift would not be more than sufficient to carry him to Florence.
"Well!" said Thorwaldsen, clapping him on the shoulder, as he went a second time to the drawer and took out another handful. The man was grateful in the highest degree, and was going. "Now you can ride the whole way home and be comfortable on the way," said he, as he followed the man to the door.
"I am very glad," said the man. "God bless you for it! but to ride the whole way requires a little capital."
"Well, then, tell me how great that must be," he asked, and looked earnestly at him. The man in a modest manner named the requisite sum, and Thorwaldsen went a third time to the drawer, counted out the sum, accompanied him to the door, pressed his hand, and repeated, "But now you will ride, for you have not strength to walk!"
Our artist did not belong to the class of great talkers; it was only in a small circle that he could be brought to say anything, but then it was always with humor and gayety. A few energetic exclamations of his are preserved. A well-known sculptor, expressing himself one day with much self-feeling, entered into a dispute with Thorwaldsen, and set his own works over the latter's. "You may bind my hands behind me," said Thorwaldsen, "and I will bite the marble out with my teeth better than you can carve it."
Thorwaldsen possessed specimens in plaster of all his works; these, together with the rich marble statues and bas-reliefs which he had collected of his own accord, without orders, and the number of paintings that he every year bought of young artists, formed a treasure that he wished to have in his proper home, Copenhagen. Therefore, when the Danish government sent vessels of war to the Mediterranean, in order to fetch the works that were ready for the palace or the churches, he always sent a number of his own things with them. Denmark was to inherit these treasures of art; and, in order to see them collected in a place worthy of them, a zeal was awakened in the nation to build a museum for their reception. A committee of his Danish admirers and friends sent out a requisition to the people, that everyone might give their mite; many a poor servant-girl and many a peasant gave theirs, so that a good sum was soon collected. Frederick VI. gave ground for the building, and the erection thereof was committed to the architect, Bindesbol.
Thorwaldsen, in 1838, had attained universal fame. The frigate Rota was dispatched to bring a cargo of his works to Copenhagen, and he was to arrive at the same time, perhaps to remain in Denmark. Close to Presto Bay, surrounded by wood-grown banks, lies Nysoee, the principal seat of the barony of Stampenborg, a place which, through Thorwaldsen, has become remarkable in Denmark. The open strand, the beautiful beech woods, even the little town seen through the orchards, at some few hundred paces from the mansion, make the place worthy of a visit on account of its truly Danish scenery. Here Thorwaldsen found his best home in Denmark; here he seemed to increase his fame, and here a series of his last beautiful bas-reliefs were produced.
Baron Stampe was one of nature's noblest-minded men; his hospitality and his lady's daughterly affection for Thorwaldsen opened a home for him here, a comfortable and good one. A great energetic power in the baroness incited his activity; she attended him with a daughter's care, elicited from him every little wish, and executed it. Directly after his first visit to Nysoee, a short tour to Moen's chalk cliffs was arranged, and during the few days that were passed there, a little atelier was erected in the garden at Nysoee, close to the canal which half encircles the principal building; here, and in a corner room of the mansion, on the first floor facing the sea, most of Thorwaldsen's works, during the last years of his life, were executed: "Christ Bearing the Cross," "The Entry into Jerusalem," "Rebecca at the Well," his own portrait-statue, Oehlenschlaeger's and Holberg's busts, etc. Baroness Stampe was in faithful attendance on him, lent him a helping hand, and read aloud for him from Holberg. Driving abroad, weekly concerts, and in the evenings his fondest play, "The Lottery," were what most easily excited him, and on these occasions he would say many amusing things. He has represented the Stampe family in two bas-reliefs: in the one, representing the mother, the two daughters, and the youngest son, is the artist himself; the other exhibits the father and the two eldest sons.
All circles sought to attract Thorwaldsen; he was at every great festival, in every great society, and every evening in the theatre by the side of Oehlenschlaeger. His greatness was allied to a mildness, a straightforwardness, that in the highest degree fascinated the stranger who approached him for the first time. His atelier in Copenhagen was visited daily; he therefore felt himself more comfortable and undisturbed at Nysoee. Baron Stampe and his family accompanied him to Italy in 1841, when he again visited that country. The whole journey, which was by way of Berlin, Dresden, Frankfort, the Rhine towns, and Munich, was a continued triumphal procession. The winter was passed in Rome, and the Danes there had a home in which they found a welcome.
The following year Thorwaldsen was again in Denmark, and at his favorite place, Nysoee. On Christmas eve he here formed his beautiful bas-relief, "Christmas Joys in Heaven," which Oehlenschlaeger consecrated with a poem. The last birthday of his life was celebrated here; the performance of one of Holberg's vaudevilles was arranged, and strangers invited; yet the morning of that day was the homeliest, when only the family and the author of this memoir, who had written a merry song for the occasion, which was still wet on the paper, placed themselves outside the artist's door, each with a pair of tongs, a gong, or a bottle on which they rubbed a cork, as an accompaniment, and sung the song as a morning greeting. Thorwaldsen, in his morning gown, opened the door, laughing; he twirled his black Raphael's cap, took a pair of tongs himself, and accompanied us, while he danced round and joined the others in the loud "hurra!"
A charming bas-relief, "The Genius of Poetry," was just completed; it was the same that Thorwaldsen, on the last day of his life, bequeathed to Oehlenschlaeger, and said, "It may serve as a medal for you."
On Sunday, March 24, 1844, a small party of friends were assembled at the residence of Baron Stampe, in Copenhagen. Thorwaldsen was there and was unusually lively, told stories, and spoke of a journey that he intended to make to Italy in the course of the summer. Cahn's tragedy of "Griseldis" was to be performed for the first time that evening at the theatre. Tragedy was not his favorite subject, but comedy, and particularly the comedies of Holberg; but it was something new that he was to see, and it had become a sort of habit with him to pass the evening in the theatre. About six o'clock, therefore, he went to the theatre alone. The overture had begun; on entering he shook hands with a few of his friends, took his usual seat, stood up again to allow one to pass him, sat down again, bent his head, and was no more! The music continued. Those nearest to him thought he was only in a swoon, and he was borne out; but he was numbered with the dead.
The mournful intelligence of his death soon spread through the country and through all lands; funeral dirges were sung and funeral festivals were arranged in Berlin and Rome; in the Danish theatre, whence his soul took its flight to God there was a festival; the place where he sat was decorated with crape and laurel wreaths, and a poem by Heiberg was recited, in which his greatness and his death were alluded to.
The day before Thorwaldsen's death the interior of his tomb was finished, for it was his wish that his remains might rest in the centre of the court-yard of the museum; it was then walled round, and he begged that there might be a marble edge around it, and a few rose-trees and flowers planted on it as his monument. The whole building, with the rich treasures which he presented to his fatherland, will be his monument; his works are to be placed in the rooms of the square building that surrounds the open court-yard, and which, both internally and externally, are painted in the Pompeian style. His arrival in the roads of Copenhagen and landing at the custom-house form the subjects depicted in the compartments under the windows of one side of the museum. Through centuries to come will nations wander to Denmark; not allured by our charming green islands, with their fresh beech-woods alone--no, but to see these works and this tomb.
There is, however, one place more that the stranger will visit, the little spot at Nysoee where his atelier stands, and where the tree bends its branches over the canal to the solitary swan which he fed. The name of Thorwaldsen will be remembered in England by his statues of Jason and Byron; in Switzerland, by his "recumbent lion;" in Roeskilde, by his figure of Christian the Fourth. It will live in every breast in which a love of art is enkindled.