Story type: Essay
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 beakhead 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 swelling sea shall baptize it with its waters, and hang its wreaths of wet plants around it; nor night, nor storm, nor icebergs, nor sunken rocks shall lure it to its death, for the Good Angel that guards the boy shall, too, guard the ship upon which with mallet and chisel he has set his mark.
—Hans Christian Andersen
The real businesslike biographer begins by telling when his subject “first saw the light”–by which he means when the man was born. In this instance we will go a bit further back and make note of the interesting fact that Thorwaldsen was descended from an ancestor who had the rare fortune to be born in Rhode Island, in the year Ten Hundred Seven.
Wiggling, jiggling, piggling individuals with quibbling proclivities, and an incapacity for distinguishing between fact and truth, may maintain that there was no Rhode Island in the year Ten Hundred Seven. Emerson has written, “Nothing is of less importance on account of its being small.” And so I maintain that, in the year Ten Hundred Seven, Rhode Island was just where it is now, and the Cosmos quite as important. Let Pawtucket protest and Providence bite the thumb–no retraction will be made!
About the year Eighteen Hundred Fifteen the Secretary of the Rhode Island Historical Society wrote Thorwaldsen, informing him that he had been elected an honorary member of the Society, on account of his being the only known living descendant of the first European born in America. Thorwaldsen replied, expressing his great delight in the honor conferred, and touched feelingly on the fact that while he had been elected to membership in various societies in consideration of what he had done, this was the first honor that had come his way on account of his ancestry. To a friend he said, “How would we ever know who we are, or where we come from, were it not for the genealogical savants!” In a book called “American Antiquities,” now in the Library at Harvard College, and I suppose accessible in various other libraries, there is a genealogical table tracing the ancestry of Thorwaldsen. It seems that, in the year Ten Hundred Six, one Thorfinne, an Icelandic whaler, commanded a ship which traversed the broad Atlantic, and skirted the coast of New England. Thorfinne wintered his craft in one of the little bays of Rhode Island, and spent the Winter at Mount Hope, where the marks of his habitat endure even unto this day.
The statement to the effect that when the Indians saw the ships of Columbus, they cried out, “Alas, we are discovered!” goes back to a much earlier period, like many another of Mark Twain’s gladsome scintillations. So little did Thorfinne and his hardy comrades think of crossing the Atlantic in search of adventure, that they used to take their families along, as though it were a picnic. And so Fate ordered that Gudrid, the good wife of Thorfinne, should give birth to a son, there at Mount Hope, Rhode Island, in the year Ten Hundred Seven. And they called the baby boy Snome. And to Snome, the American, the pedigree of Thorwaldsen traces. In a lecture on the Icelandic Sagas, I once heard William Morris say that all really respectable Icelanders traced their genealogy to a king, and many of them to a god. Thorwaldsen did both–first to Harold Hildestand, King of Denmark, and then, with the help of several kind old gran’mamas, to the god Thor. His love for mythology was an atavism. In childhood the good old aunties used to tell him how the god Thor once trod the earth and shattered the mountains with his hammer. From Thor and the World his first ancestor was born, so the family name was Thor-vald. The appendix “sen,” or son, means that the man was the son of Thor-vald; and in some way the name got ossified, like the name Robinson, Parkinson, Peterson or Albertson, and then it was Thorwaldsen.
Men who are strong in their own natures are very apt to smile at the good folk who chase the genealogical aniseed trail–it is a harmless diversion with no game at the end of the route. And on the other hand, all men, like Thorwaldsen, who teach cosmic consciousness, recognize their Divine Sonship. Such men feel that their footsteps are mortised and tenoned in granite; and the Power that holds the worlds in space and guides the wheeling planets, also prompts their thoughts and directs their devious way. They know that they are a necessary part of the Whole. Small men are provincial, mediocre men are cosmopolitan, but the great souls are Universal.
Two islands, one city and the open sea claim the honor of being the birthplace of Bertel Thorwaldsen. The date of his birth ranges, according to the authorities, from Seventeen Hundred Seventy to Seventeen Hundred Seventy-three–take your choice. His father was an Icelander who had worked his passage down to Copenhagen and had found his stint as a wood-carver in a shipyard where it was his duty to carve out wonderful figureheads, after designs made by others. Gottschalk Thorwaldsen never thought to improve on a model, or change it in any way, or to model a figurehead himself. The cold of the North had chilled any ambition that was in his veins. Goodsooth! Such work as designing figureheads was only for those who had been to college, and who could read and write! So he worked away, day after day, and with the help of the goodwife’s foresight and economy, managed to keep out of debt, pay his tithes at church and lead a decent life.
Little Bertel used to remember when, like the Peggottys, they lived in an abandoned canal-boat that had been tossed up on the beach. Bertel carried chips and shavings from the shipyard for fuel, and piled them against the “house.” One night the tide came up in a very unexpected manner and carried the chips away, for the sea is so very hungry that it is always sending the tide in to shore after things. It was quite a loss for the poor wood-carver and his wife to have all their winter fuel carried away; so they cuffed little Bertel soundly (for his own good) for not piling the chips up on the deck of the boat, instead of leaving them on the shifting sand.
This was the first great cross that came to Bertel. He had a few others afterwards, but he never forgot the night of anguish and the feeling of guilt that followed the losing of the shavings and chips.
Some weeks after, another high tide came sweeping in, and lapped and sniffed and sighed around the canal-boat as if it were trying to tug it loose and carry the old craft and all the family out to sea. Little Bertel hoped the tide would fetch it, for it would be kind o’ nice to get clear out away from everybody and everything–where there were no chips to pick up. His mother could supply a quilt for a mainsail and he would use his shirt for a jib, and they would steer straight for America–or somewhere.
But lest the dream should come true, Gottschalk and his wife talked the matter over and concluded to abandon the boat, before it got sunk into the sand quite out of sight. So the family moved into a little house on an alley, half a mile away from the shipyard–it was an awful long way to carry chips.
The second calamity that came into the life of little Bertel was when he was eight years old. He and several companions were playing about the King’s Market, where there was an equestrian statue of Charles the Twelfth.
The boys climbed up on to the pedestal, cut various capers there, and finally they challenged Bertel to mount the horse behind the noble rider. By dint of much boosting from several boys older than himself, he was at last perched on the horse. Then his companions made hot haste to run away and leave him in his perilous position. Just then, as unkind Fate would have it, a pair of gendarmes came along on the lookout for anything that might savor of sedition, contumacy or contravention. They found it in little Bertel clutching tearfully to the royal person of Charles the Twelfth, twelve feet above the ground. Quickly they rushed the lad off to the police- station, between them, each with a firm grip upon his collar.
Victor Hugo once said, “The minions of the law go stolidly after vice, and not finding it, they stolidly take virtue instead.”
Besides an awful warning “never to do this thing again,” from a judge in a ferocious wig, the boy got a flogging at home (for his own good), although his father first explained that it was a very painful duty to himself to be obliged to punish his son. The son volunteered to excuse his father, and this brought the youngster ten extra lashes for being so smart.
Long years after, at Rome, Thorwaldsen told the story to Hans Christian Andersen about being caught astride the great bronze horse at Copenhagen, and of the awful reprimand of the judge bewigged.
“And honestly now: I’ll never tell,” said Andersen with a sly twinkle in his blue eyes–“did you ever repeat the offense?”
“Since you promise not to divulge it, I’ll confess that forty-three years after my crime of mounting that horse, I had occasion to cross King’s Market Square at midnight. I had been out to a little social gathering, and was on my way home alone. I saw the great horse and rider gleaming in the pale moonlight. I recalled vividly how I had occupied that elevated perch and been hauled down by the scandalized and indignant officers. I remembered the warning of the judge as to what would happen if I ever did it again. Hastily I removed my coat and hat and clambered up on the pedestal. I seized a leg of the royal person, and swung up behind. For five minutes I sat there mentally defying the State, and saying unspeakable things about all gendarmes and Copenhagen gendarmes in particular.”
I have a profound respect for boys. Grimy, ragged, tousled boys in the street often attract me strangely. A boy is a man in the cocoon –you do not know what it is going to become–his life is big with possibilities.
He may make or unmake kings, change boundary-lines between States, write books that will mold characters, or invent machines that will revolutionize the commerce of the world. Every man was a boy–I trust I shall not be contradicted–it is really so. Wouldn’t you like to turn Time backward, and see Abraham Lincoln at twelve, when he had never worn a pair of boots?–the lank, lean, yellow, hungry boy–hungry for love, for learning, tramping off through the woods for twenty miles to borrow a book, and spelling it out crouching before the glare of the burning logs.
Then there was that Corsican boy, one of a goodly brood, who weighed only fifty pounds when ten years old; who was thin and pale and perverse, and had tantrums, and had to be sent supperless to bed, or locked in a dark closet because he wouldn’t “mind”! Who would have thought that he would have mastered every phase of warfare at twenty-six, and when told that the Exchequer of France was in dire confusion, would say: “The finances? I will arrange them!”
Distinctly and vividly I remember a squat, freckled boy who was born in the “Patch” and used to pick up coal along the railroad-tracks in Buffalo. A few months ago I had a motion to make before the Court of Appeals. That boy from the “Patch” was the judge who wrote the opinion, granting my petition.
Yesterday I rode horseback past a field where a boy was plowing. The lad’s hair stuck out through the top of his hat; one suspender held his trousers in place; his form was bony and awkward; his bare legs and arms were brown and sunburned and briar-scratched. He swung his horses around just as I passed by, and from under the flapping brim of his hat he cast a quick glance out of dark, half-bashful eyes, and modestly returned my salute. When his back was turned I took off my hat and sent a God-bless-you down the furrow after him.
Who knows?–I may go to that boy to borrow money or to hear him preach, or to beg him to defend me in a lawsuit; or he may stand with pulse unhastened, bare of arm, in white apron, ready to do his duty, while the cone is placed over my face, and Night and Death come creeping into my veins. Be patient with the boys–you are dealing with soul-stuff–Destiny awaits just around the corner. Be patient with the boys!
Bertel Thorwaldsen was fourteen years old. He was pale and slender, and had a sharp chin and a straight nose and hair the color of sunburned tow. His eyes were large, set wide apart and bright blue; and he looked out upon the world silently, with a sort o’ wistful melancholy. He helped his father carve out the wonderful figureheads that were to pilot the ships across strange seas and bring good luck to the owners.
“A boy like that should be sent to the Academy and taught designing,” said one of the shipowners one day as he watched the lad at his work. Gottschalk shook his head dubiously. “How could a poor man, with a family to support, and provisions so high, spare his boy from work! Aye, wasn’t he teaching the lad a trade himself, as it was?”
But the shipowner fumbled his fob, and insisted, and to test the boy he had him work with his designers. And he compromised with the father by having Bertel sent to the Academy half a day at a time.
At the school one of the instructors remembered Bertel, on account of his long yellow hair that hung down in his eyes when he leaned over the desk; also his dulness in every line except drawing and clay-modeling. The newspapers one day announced that a certain young Master Thorwaldsen had been awarded a prize for clay-modeling.
“Is that your brother?” asked the teacher next day. “It is myself, Herr Chaplain,” replied the boy, blushing to the roots of his yellow hair.
The Chaplain coughed to conceal his surprise. He had always thought this boy incapable of anything. “Herr Thorwaldsen,” he said, severely, “you will please pass to the first grade!” And to be addressed as “Herr” meant that you really were somebody. “He called me ‘Herr’!” said Bertel to his mother that night–“He called me ‘Herr’!”
About this time we find the painter Abildgaard taking a special interest in young Bertel, giving him lessons in drawing and painting, and encouraging him in his modeling. In fact, Thorwaldsen has himself explained that all of his “original” designs about this time were supplied by Abildgaard. The interest of Abildgaard in the boy was slightly resented by the young man’s parents, who were afraid that their son was getting above his station. Abildgaard has left a record to the effect that at this time Thorwaldsen was very self-contained, reticent, and seemingly without ambition. He used to postpone every task, and would often shirk his duties until sharp reminders came. Yet when he did begin, he would fall on the task like one possessed, and finish it in an hour. This proved to Abildgaard that the stuff was there, and down in his heart he believed that this sleepy lad would some day awake from slumber.
Anyway, Abildgaard used to say, long years after, “What did I tell you?” Gottschalk was paid by the piece for his carving; he was getting better pay now, because he did better work, his employer thought. Bertel was helping him. The family was getting quite prosperous.
When Bertel had secured, between sleepy spells, about all the prizes for clay-modeling and sketching that artistic Copenhagen had to offer, he started for Rome, armed with a three-year traveling scholarship. This prize proved to be a pivotal point. The young man had done good work, and seemingly without effort; but he was sadly lacking in general education–and worse, he apparently had no desire to learn.
He was twenty-six years of age when he sailed for Rome on the good ship “Thetis.” The scholarship he had won four years before, but through disinclination to press his claims, and the procrastination of officialism, the matter was pigeonholed. It might have gone by default had not Abildgaard said “Go!” and loudly.
Thorwaldsen was a sort of charity passenger on the ship–taken on request of the owner–and it was assumed that he would make himself useful. But the captain of the craft left him a recommendation to the effect that “The young fellow Thorwaldsen is the laziest man I ever saw.” The ship was on a trading tour, and lingered along various coasts and put into many harbors; so nine months went by before Bertel Thorwaldsen found himself in the Eternal City.
“I was born March Eighth, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-seven,” Thorwaldsen used to say. That was the day he reached Rome. Antonio Canova, the sculptor, was then at the height of his popularity. Thorwaldsen’s first success was the model for a statue of Jason, which was highly praised by Canova, and Bertel received the commission to execute it in marble from Thomas Hope, a wealthy English art patron. From this time forth, Thorwaldsen’s success was assured.
His scholarship provided only for three years’ residence; but twenty-three years were to elapse before he should again see his childhood’s home–as for his parents, he had looked into their eyes for the last time.
The soul grows by leaps and bounds, by throes and throbs. A flash! and a glory stands revealed for which you have been groping blindly through the years. Well did Thorwaldsen call the day of his arrival in Rome the day of his birth! For the first time the world seemed to unfold before him. On the voyage thither, the captain of the “Thetis” had offered to prepare him for his stay in Rome by teaching him the Italian language; but the young sculptor was indifferent. During the months he was on shipboard, he might have mastered the language; this came back to him as he stood in the presence of Saint Peter’s, and realized that he was treading the streets once trod by Michelangelo. He spoke only “Sailor’s Latin,” a composite of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic. The waste of time of which he had been guilty, and the extent of all that lay beyond, pressed home upon him.
Of course we know that the fallow years are as good as the years of plenty; the silent Winter prepares the soil for Spring; and we know, too, that the sense of unworthiness and the discontent that Thorwaldsen felt during his first few weeks at Rome were big with promise.
The antique world was a new world to him; he knew nothing of mythology, nothing of history, little of books. He began to thirst for knowledge, and this being true, he drank it in. Little men spell things out with sweat and lamp-smoke, but others there be who absorb in the mass, read by the page, and grow great by simply letting down their buckets.
This fair-haired descendant of a Viking bold had the usual preliminary struggle, for the Established Order is always resentful toward pressing youth. He worked incessantly: sketched, read, studied, modeled, and to help out his finances copied pictures for prosperous dealers who made it their business thus to employ ‘prentice talent.
But a few years and we see Thorwaldsen occupying the studio of Flaxman, and more than filling that strong man’s place. For specimens of Flaxman’s work examine your “Wedgwood”; and then to see Thorwaldsen’s product, multiply Flaxman by one hundred. One worked in the delicate and exquisite; the other had a taste for the heroic: both found inspiration in the Greek.
It will not do to claim for Thorwaldsen that he was a great and original genius. He lacked that hirsute, independent quality of Michelangelo, and surely he lacked the Attic invention. He was receptive as a woman, and he builded on what had been done. He moved in the line of least resistance–made friends of Protestant and Catholic alike; won the warm recognition of the Pope, who averred, “Thorwaldsen is a good Catholic, only he does not know it.” He kept clear of all factions, and with a modicum more of will, might have been a very prince of diplomats. But as it was, he evolved into a prince of artists.
Soon after his advent in Rome, Thorwaldsen met, at the country-house of his friend, critic and benefactor Zoega, a young woman who was destined to have a profound influence upon his life. Anna Maria Magnani was lady’s maid and governess in the Zoega household. She was a beautiful animal: dark, luminous, flashing eyes, hair black as the raven’s wing, and a form that palpitated with passion–a true daughter of the warm, sun-kissed South.
The young sculptor of the yellow locks danced with the signorina at the rustic fetes upon the lawn. She spoke no Danish, and his Italian was exceedingly limited, but hand pressed hand and they contrived to make themselves understood. She volunteered to give him lessons in Italian; this went well, and then she posed for him as a model.
What should have been at best or worst a mere incident in the artist’s life ripened into something more. Intellectually and spiritually they lived in different worlds, and in sober moments both realized it. An arrangement was entered into of the same quality and kind as Goethe and Christine Vulpius assumed. Only this woman had moments of rebellion when she thirsted for social honors. As his wife, Thorwaldsen knew that she would be a veritable dead- weight, and he sought to loosen her grasp upon him. An offer of marriage came to her from a man of means and social station. Thorwaldsen favored the mating, and did what he could to hasten the nuptials. But when the other man had actually married the girl and carried her away, he had a sick spell to pay for it–he wasn’t quite so calloused in heart as he had believed. Like many other men, Thorwaldsen found that such a tie is not easily broken.
Anna Maria thought she loved the man she had married, and at least she believed she could learn to do so. Alas! after six months of married life she packed up and came back to Rome, declaring that, though her husband was kind and always treated her well, she would rather be the slave and servant of Thorwaldsen than the wife of any man on earth. The sculptor hadn’t the heart to turn her away. More properly, her will was stronger than his conscience. Perhaps he was glad, too, that she had come back! The injured husband followed, and Anna Maria warned the man to be gone, and emphasized the suggestion with the gleam of a pearl-handled stiletto; and by the same token kept all gushing females away from the Thorwaldsen preserve.
Thorwaldsen never married, and there is no doubt that his engagement to Miss Mackenzie, a most excellent English lady, was vetoed by Anna Maria and her pearl-handled stiletto.
One child was born to Anna Maria and Thorwaldsen–a girl, who was legally acknowledged by Thorwaldsen as his daughter. When prosperity came his way some years later, he deposited in the Bank of Copenhagen a sum equal to twenty thousand dollars, with orders that the interest should be paid to her as long as she lived.
Unlike Byron’s daughter Allegra, born the same year only a few miles away, who died young and for whose grave at Harrow the poet had carved the touching line, “I shall go to her, but she will not return to me,” the daughter of Thorwaldsen grew up, was happily married and bore a son who achieved considerable distinction as an artist. Thus the sculptor’s good fortune attended him, even in circumstances that work havoc in most men’s lives–he disarmed the Furies with a smile!
Many visitors daily thronged the studio of Thorwaldsen. He had one general reception-room containing casts of his work, and many curious things in the line of art. His servant greeted the callers and made them at home, expressing much regret at the absence of his master, who was “out of the city,” etc. Meanwhile, Thorwaldsen was hard at it in a back room, to which only the elect were admitted. The King of Bavaria, a genuine artist himself in spirit, who spent much time in Rome, conceived a great admiration for Thorwaldsen. He walked into the atelier where the sculptor was at work one day and hung around his neck by a gold chain the “Cross of the Commander,” a decoration never before given to any but great military commanders.
King Louis had a very unkinglike way of doing things, and used to go by the studio and whistle for Thorwaldsen and call to him to come out and walk, or drive, ride or dine.
“I wish that King would go off and reign–I have work to do,” cried the sculptor rather impatiently.
Envious critics used to maintain that there were ten men in Rome who could model as well as Thorwaldsen, “but they haven’t yellow hair that falls to their shoulders, and heaven-blue eyes with which to snare the ladies.”
The fact must be admitted that the vogue of Thorwaldsen owed much to the remarkable social qualities of the man. His handsome face and fine form were supplemented by a manner most gentle and winning; and whether his half-diffident ways and habit of reticence were natural or the triumph of art was a vexing problem that never found solution.
He was the social rage in every salon. And his ability to do the right thing at the right time, seemingly without premeditation, made him a general favorite. For instance, if he attended a fete given by the King of Bavaria, he wore just one decoration–the decoration of Bavaria. If he attended a ball given by the French Ambassador, in the lapel of his modest black velvet coat he wore the red ribbon that tokens the Legion of Honor. When he visited the Villa of the Grand Duchess Helena of Russia, he wore no jewel save the diamond- studded star presented to him by the Czar. At the reception given by the “English Colony” to Sir Walter Scott, the great sculptor wore a modest thistle-blossom in his lapel, which caused Lord Elgin to offer odds that if O’Connell should appear in Rome, Thorwaldsen would wear a sprig of shamrock in his hat and say nothing. The thistle caught Sir Walter, and the next day when he came to call on the sculptor he saw a tam-o-shanter hanging on the top of an easel and a bit of plaid scarf thrown carelessly across the corner of the picture below. The poet and the sculptor embraced, patting each other on the back, called each other “Brother” and smiled good-will. But as Thorwaldsen could not speak English and Sir Walter spoke nothing else, they merely beamed and ran the scale of adjectives, thus: Sublimissio! Hero! Precious! Plaisir! La Grande! Delighted! Splendide! Honorable! Then they embraced again and backed away, waving each other good-by.
Thorwaldsen had more medals, degrees and knighthoods than Sir Walter ever saw, but he would allow no prefix to his name. Denmark, Russia, Germany, Italy, France and the Pope had outdone themselves in doing him honor. All these “trifles” in the way of decorations he kept in a specially prepared case, which was opened occasionally for the benefit of lady visitors. “The girls like such things,” said Thorwaldsen, and smiled in apology.
Shelley found his way to Thorwaldsen’s studio, and made mention that the Master was a bit of a poseur. Byron came, and as we know, sat for that statue which is now at Cambridge. The artist sought to beguile the melancholy sitter with pleasant conversation, but the author of “Don Juan” would have none of it, and when the work was completed and unveiled before him, he exclaimed in disappointment, “I look far more unhappy than that!”
Thorwaldsen was a musician of no mean quality, and there was always a piano in his studio, to which he often turned for rest. When Felix Mendelssohn was in Rome he made the sculptor’s workshop his headquarters, and sometimes the two would play “four hands,” or else Thorwaldsen would accompany the “Song Without Words” upon his violin.
Gradually the number of the “elect” seemed to grow. It was regarded as a great sight to see the Master at his work. And by degrees Thorwaldsen reached a point where he could keep right along at his task and receive his friends at the same time.
The man at his work! There is nothing finer. I have seen men homely, uncouth and awkward when “dressed up,” who were superb when at their work. Once I saw Augustus Saint Gaudens in blouse and overalls, well plastered with mud, standing on a ladder hard at it on an equestrian statue, lost to everything but the task in hand–intoxicated with a thought, working like mad to materialize an idea. The sight gave me a thrill!–one of those very few unforgetable thrills that Time fixes ever the more firmly in one’s memory.
To gain admittance to the workroom of Thorwaldsen was a thing to boast of: proud ladies schemed and some sought to bribe the trusty valet; but to these the door was politely barred. Yet the servant, servantlike, was awed by titles and nobility.
“The Duchess of Parma!” whispered the valet one day in agitation– “the Duchess of Parma–she has followed me in and is now standing behind you!”
Thorwaldsen could not just place the lady: he turned, bowed, and gazed upon a stout personage who was slightly overdressed. The lady quite abruptly stated that she had called to make arrangements to have a statue, or a bust at least, made of herself. That Thorwaldsen would be proud to model her features seemed quite fixed in her mind. The artist cast her a swift glance and noted that Nature had put small trace of the classic in the lady’s modeling. He mentally declined the commission, and muttered something about being “so delighted and honored, but unluckily I am so very busy,” etc. “My husband desires it,” continued the lady, “and so does my son, the King of Rome–a title, I hope, that is not strange to you!”
It swept over Thorwaldsen, like a winter’s wave, that this big, brusk, bizarre woman before him was Maria Louisa, the second wife of Napoleon. He knew her history: wedded at nineteen to Napoleon–the mother of L’Aiglon at twenty–married again in unbecoming haste to Count Niepperg Nobody, with whom she had been on very intimate terms, as soon as word arrived of Napoleon’s death at Saint Helena, and now raising a goodly brood of Nobodies! The artist grew faint before this daughter of kings who had made a mesalliance with Genius–he excused himself and left the room.
Thorwaldsen was a hero-worshiper by nature, and Napoleon’s memory loomed large to him on the horizon of the ideal. Needless to say, he never modeled the features of Maria Louisa Hapsburg, but her visit fired him with a desire to make a bust of Napoleon, and the desire materialized is ours in heroic mold.
Some time after this, Thorwaldsen designed a monument to the Duke of Leuchtenberg, Eugene de Beauharnais, son of the Empress Josephine.
The days went in their fashion, and the Count Niepperg passed away, as even Counts do, for Death recognizes no title; and Maria Louisa was again experiencing the pangs of widowhood. She sent word for Thorwaldsen to come and design the late lamented a proper tomb, something not unlike that which he had done for the son of Josephine–money was no object in the Hapsburg family!
Very few commissions were declined by Thorwaldsen. He was a good businessman and often had a dozen men quietly working out his orders, but he wrote to Maria Louisa begging to be excused–and as a relief to his feelings, straightway modeled another bust of Napoleon. This bust was sold to Alexander Murray, Byron’s publisher, and is now to be seen in Edinburgh. Strange, is it not, that the home of “The Scotch Greys,” tumbled by Fate and Napoleon into an open grave, should do the Little Man honor! And Thorwaldsen, the man of peace, was bound to the man of war by the silken thread of sentiment.
Thorwaldsen was the true successor of Canova–his career was inaugurated when Canova gave him his blessing. The triumphs of the lover of Pauline Bonaparte were transferred to him. He accepted the situation with all of its precedents.
Thorwaldsen spent forty-two years of his life at Rome, but Denmark never lost her hold upon him during this time. The King showered him with honors and gave him every privilege at his command.
The Danish Ambassador always had special instructions “not to neglect the interests and welfare of our brother, Chevalier Thorwaldsen, Artist and Sculptor to the King.”
For years, in the Academy at Copenhagen, rooms were set apart for him, and he was solicited to return and occupy them, and by his gracious presence honor the institution that had sent him forth. Only once, however, did he return, and then his stay was brief. But from time to time he presented specimens of his work to his native city, and various casts and copies of his pieces found their way to the “Thorwaldsen Room” at the Academy; so there gradually grew up there a “Thorwaldsen Museum.”
Now the shadows were lengthening toward the east. The Master had turned his seventieth milestone, and he began to look backward to his boyhood’s home as a place of rest, as old men do. A Commissioner was sent by the King of Denmark with orders to use his best offices to the end that Thorwaldsen should return; and plans were made to evolve the Thorwaldsen Room into a complete museum.
The result of these negotiations brought about the Thorwaldsen Museum–that plainly simple, but solidly built structure at Copenhagen, erected by the city, from plans made by the Master. Here are shown over two hundred large statues and bas-reliefs, copies and originals of the best things done in that long and busy life.
Thorwaldsen left his medals, decorations, pictures, books and thousands of drawings and sketches to this Museum–the sole property of the municipality. The building is arranged in the form of a square, with a court, and here the dust of the Master rests. No artist has ever had a more fitting tomb, designed by himself, surrounded by the creations of his hand and brain. These chant his elegy and there he sleeps.
Good looks, courtesy and social accomplishments are factors in our artistic career that should not be lightly waived. Thorwaldsen won every recognition that is possible for men to win from other men– fame, honor, wealth. In way of success he tasted all the world can offer. He built on Winckelmann, Mengs and Canova, inspired by a classic environment, and examples of work done by men turned to dust centuries before. In many instances Thorwaldsen followed the letter and failed to catch the spirit of Greece; this is not to his discredit–who has completely succeeded in revitalizing the breath of ancient art?
Thorwaldsen won everything but immortality. It sounds harsh, but let us admit it; he was at best a great imitator, however noble the objects of his imitation. A recent writer has tried to put him in the class with “John Rogers, the Pride of America,” but this is manifestly unfair. As an artist he ranks rather with Powers, Story and Palmer.
Never for a moment can he be compared with Saint Gaudens, or our own French; Bartlett and Ward surpass him in general skill and fertility of resources. All is comparative–Thorwaldsen’s fame floats upon the wave, far astern. We are making head.
We have that superb “Night,” so full of tenderness and spirit, done in tears (as all the best things are). The “Night” is not to be spoken of without its beautiful companion-piece, the “Morning.” Each was done at a sitting, in a passion of creative energy. Yet when the roll of all Thorwaldsen’s pieces is called, we see that his fame centers and is chiefly embodied in “The Lion of Lucerne.”
I suppose it need not longer be concealed that in Switzerland you can purchase copies and models of Thorwaldsen’s “Lion of Lucerne.” Some are in marble, some in granite, some in bronze, a great many are in wood–carved while you wait–and at my hotel in Lucerne we used to have the noble beast on the table every morning at breakfast, done in butter.
The reproductions are of all sizes, from heroic mold to watch-charms and bangles. Sculptors have carved this lion, painters have painted it, artists have sketched it, but did you ever see a reproduction of “The Lion of Lucerne”? No, dearie, you never did, and never will. No copy has a trace of that indefinable look of mingled pain and patience, which even the broken spear in his side can not disturb– that soulful, human quality which the original has. No; every copy is a caricature. It is a risky thing to try to put love in a lion’s face!
An intelligent young woman called my attention to the fact that the psychological conditions under which we view “The Lion” are the most subtle and complete that man can devise; and these are the things that add the last touch to art and cause us to stand speechless, and which make the unbidden tears start. The little lake at the foot of the cliff prevents a too near approach; the overhanging vines and melancholy boughs form a dim, subduing shade; the falling water seems like the playing of an organ in a vast cathedral; and last, the position of the lion itself, against the solid cliff, partakes of the miraculous. It is not set up there for people to look at: it is a part of the mountain, and the great seams of the strata running through the figure lend the spirit of miracle to it all. It seems as though God Himself had done the work, and the surprise and joy of discovery are ours as we stand uncovered before it.
One must concede the masterly framing and hanging of the picture, but beyond all this is the technical skill, giving the look of woe that does not tell of weakness, as woe usually does, but strength and loyalty and death without flinching in a righteous cause: symbolic of the Swiss Guard that died at their post, not one of the three hundred wavering, there at the King’s palace at Paris–all dead and turned to dust a century past, and this lion, mortally wounded, mutely pleading for our tears!
We pay the tribute.
And the reason we are moved is because we partake of the emotions of the artist when he did the work; and the reason we are not moved by any models or copies or imitations is because there is small feeling in the heart of an imitator. Great art is born of feeling! In order to do, you must feel.
If Thorwaldsen had done nothing else, “The Lion” would be monument enough. We remember William Cullen Bryant, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for one poem; Poe for three. Thoreau wrote only one essay the world will cherish; and “keeping Ruskin’s ‘Sesame and Lilies’ and ‘The Golden River,’ we can let the rest go,” says Augustine Birrell.
Thorwaldsen paid the penalty of success. He should have tasted exile, poverty and heartbreak–not to have known these was his misfortune. And perhaps his best work lay in keeping alive the classic tradition; in educating whole nations to a taste for sculpture; in turning the attention of society from strife to art, from war to harmony. His were the serene successes of beauty, the triumphs of peace.