A few months ago we visited a plain old house in Copenhagen, the boyhood
home of the great Danish sculptor. Here he worked with his father, a
poor wood-carver, who, thinking his boy would be a more skilful workman
if he learned to draw, sent him to the Free Royal Academy of Fine Arts
when he was twelve years old. At the end of four years he took a prize,
and the fact was mentioned in the newspapers. The next day, one of the
teachers asked, "Thorwaldsen, is it your brother who has carried off the
Bertel's cheeks colored with pride as he said, "No, sir; it is I." The
teacher changed his tone, and replied, "Mr. Thorwaldsen, you will go up
immediately to the first rank."
Years afterward, when he had become famous, he said no praise was ever
so sweet as being called "Mr." when he was poor and unknown.
Two years later, he won another prize; but he was now obliged to stay at
home half the time to help support the large family. Obtaining a small
gold medal from the Academy, although so modest that, after the
examination, he escaped from the midst of the candidates by a private
staircase, he determined to try for the large gold medal. If he could
obtain this, he would receive a hundred and twenty dollars a year for
three years, and study art in Italy. He at once began to give
drawing-lessons, taught modelling to wealthy boys, and helped illustrate
books, working from early morning till late at night. He was rarely seen
to smile, so hard was the struggle for daily bread. But he tried for the
medal, and won.
What visions of fame must have come before him now, as he said good-by
to his poor parents, whom, alas, he was never to see again, and, taking
his little dog Hector, started for far-away Italy! When he arrived, he
was so ill and homesick that several times he decided to give up art and
go back. He copied diligently the works of the old masters, and tried in
vain to earn a little money. He sent some small works of his own to
Copenhagen; but nobody bought them. He made "Jason with the Golden
Fleece," and, when no one ordered it, the discouraged artist broke it in
pieces. The next year he modelled another Jason, a lady furnishing the
means; and while everybody praised it, and Canova said, "This young Dane
has produced a work in a new and grand style," it did not occur to any
one to buy the statue in marble.
An artist could not live on praise alone. Anxious days came and went,
and he was destitute and wretched. He must leave Rome, and go back to
the wood-carving in Copenhagen; for no one wanted beautiful things,
unless the maker was famous. He deferred going from week to week, till
at last his humble furniture had been sold, and his trunks waited at the
door. As he was leaving the house, his travelling companion said to him,
"We must wait till to-morrow, from a mistake in our passports."
A few hours later, Mr. Thomas Hope, an English banker, entered his
studio, and, struck with the grandeur of his model of Jason, asked the
cost in marble. "Six hundred sequins" (over twelve hundred dollars), he
answered, not daring to hope for such good fortune. "That is not enough;
you should ask eight," said the generous man, who at once ordered it.
And this was the turning-point in Bertel's life. How often a rich man
might help a struggling artist, and save a genius to the world, as did
this banker! Young Thorwaldsen now made the acquaintance of the Danish
ambassador to Naples, who introduced him to the family of Baron Wilhelm
von Humboldt, where the most famous people in Rome gathered. Soon a
leading countess commissioned him to cut four marble statues,--Bacchus,
Ganymede, Apollo, and Venus. Two years later, he was made professor in
the Royal Academy of Florence.
The Academy of Copenhagen now sent him five hundred dollars as an
expression of their pride in him. How much more he needed it when he was
near starving, all those nine years in Rome! The bashful student had
become the genial companion and interesting talker. Louis of Bavaria,
who made Munich one of the art centres of the world, was his admirer and
friend. The Danish King urged him to return to Copenhagen; but, as the
Quirinal was to be decorated with great magnificence, Rome could not
spare him. For this, he made in three months his famous "Entry of
Alexander into Babylon," and soon after his exquisite bas-reliefs,
"Night" and "Morning,"--the former, a goddess carrying in her arms two
children, Sleep and Death; the latter, a goddess flying through the air,
scattering flowers with both hands.
In 1816, when he was forty-six, he finished his Venus, after having made
thirty models of the figure. He threw away the first attempt, and
devoted three years to the completion of the second. Three statues were
made, one of which is at Chatsworth, the elegant home of the Duke of
Devonshire; and one was lost at sea. A year later, he carved his
exquisite Byron, now at Trinity College, Cambridge.
He was now made a member of three other famous academies. Having been
absent from Denmark twenty-three years, the King urged his return for a
visit, at least. The Royal Palace of Charlottenburg was prepared for his
reception The students of the Academy escorted him with bands of music,
cannon were fired, poems read, cantatas sung; and the King created him
councillor of state.
Was the wood-carver's son proud of all these honors? No. The first
person he met at the palace was the old man who had served as a model
for the boys when Thorwaldsen was at school. So overcome was he as he
recalled those days of toil and poverty, that he fell upon the old man's
neck, and embraced him heartily.
After some of the grandest work of his life in the Frue Kirke,--Christ
and the Twelve Apostles, and others,--he returned to Rome, visiting, on
the way, Alexander of Russia, who, after Thorwaldsen had made his bust,
presented the artist with a diamond ring.
Although a Protestant, accounted now the greatest living sculptor, he
was made president of the Academy of St. Luke, a position held by Canova
when he was alive, and was commissioned to build the monument of Pius
VII. in St. Peters. Mendelssohn, the great composer, had become his warm
friend, and used to play for him as he worked in his studio. Sir Walter
Scott came to visit the artist, and as the latter could speak scarcely a
word of English, the two shook hands heartily, and clapped each other on
the shoulder as they parted.
When Thorwaldsen was sixty-eight years old, he left Rome to end his
days among his own people. The enthusiasm on his arrival was unbounded.
The whole city waited nearly three days for his coming. Boats decked
with flowers went out to meet him, and so many crowded on board his
vessel that it was feared she would sink. The members of the Academy
came in a body; and the crowd took the horses from the carriage, and
drew it themselves through the streets to the Palace of Charlottenburg.
In the evening there was a grand torchlight procession, followed by a
constant round of parties.
So beset was he with invitations to dinner, that, to save a little time
for himself, he told his servant Wilkins, that he would dine with him
and his wife. Wilkins, greatly confused, replied, "What would the world
think if it found out that the chancellor dined with his servant?"
"The world--the world! Have I not told you a thousand times that I don't
care in the least what the world thinks about these things?" Sometimes
he refused even to dine with the King. Finding at last that society
would give him no rest, he went to live with some friends at Nyso, seven
hours by boat from Copenhagen.
Once more he visited Rome, for a year, receiving royal attentions all
through Germany. Two years after, as he was sitting in the theatre, he
rose to let a lady pass. She saw him bending toward the floor, and
asked, "Have you dropped something?"
The great man made no answer; he was dead. The funeral was a grand
expression of love and honor. His body lay in state in the Royal Palace,
laurel about his brow, the coffin ornamented with floral crowns--one
made by the Queen of Denmark; his chisel laid in the midst of laurel and
palm, and his great works of art placed about him. Houses were draped in
black, bells tolled in all the churches, women threw flowers from their
windows before the forty artists who carried the coffin, and the King
and Prince royal received it in person at the Frue Kirke.
Then it was borne to the large museum which Copenhagen had built to
receive his work, and buried in the centre of the inner court, which had
been prepared under his own hand. A low granite coping surrounds the
grave, which is entirely covered with ivy, and on the side is his boyish
name, Bertel (Bartholomew) Thorwaldsen.