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Bertel Thorwaldsen

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
r /> 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.