Antique copies of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s small- scale works are popular amongst connoisseurs of neoclassical art, while modern replicas are available for admirers on more modest budgets
At H&A we were intrigued by John and Gabrielle Sutcli e’s four plaster replicas of relief roundels by neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (page 78).
One of Denmark’s highly celebrated artists, Bertel Thorvaldsen enjoyed worldwide recognition during his lifetime as one of the most gifted portrait sculptors of his generation. Although still much admired in his home country (where there is a museum dedicated to his life and work) Thorvaldsen’s fame elsewhere has waned. Outside Denmark, the sculptor is probably best known for his miniature relief panels of biblical and classical scenes; casts and copies of which remain highly collectable, whether made while he was alive or much later, such as the examples hanging in the Sutcli es’ hall.
Born in 1770 in Copenhagen to Icelandic immigrants, Thorvaldsen’s beginnings were surprisingly humble given his later success. His father earned a living as a wood carver, sculpting the decorative details that adorned merchant ships, and it was from him that Bertel first learned to sculpt. It soon became clear that he was unusually talented, and at just 11 years old he was admitted to The Royal Danish Academy of Art.
Within six years, Thorvaldsen had won a stipend to travel to Rome in order to continue his education. It was there that he sealed his reputation as a sculptor of note, attracting praise from Antonio Canova, the most important sculptor of the day.
Thorvaldsen quickly established a large workshop in Rome and was soon receiving commissions from all over Europe. He remained in Italy for 40 years, and during that time he produced a large body of work including portrait busts, full-size figures, relief panels and roundels.
Night and Day (1815) are now two of his best-known works, based on the writings of the Greek traveller and geographer Pausanias (AD 143– 176). The two roundels, designed to be displayed together, were so popular in their time that
Thorvaldsen himself made several versions including panels for the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Other copies made at various times over the last two centuries, in marble, bronze and plaster, hang in museums and private collections across Europe. The originals are placed opposite one another in the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen.
While the originals of Thorvaldsen’s works rarely make their way onto the open market, replicas of his relief panels do come up at auction from time to time. Prices reflect the age, provenance and quality of the pieces. In July 2016, Night and Day, carved in ivory and attributed to Benjamin Cheverton (1794–1876) sold at Sotheby’s for £10,000. However, it’s not necessary to have a huge bank balance – good quality, modern plaster replicas from companies such as Modern Souvenir in Bath are available for as little as £30. Q
The Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen not only contains a large number of the artist’s works, including his preliminary sketches and maquettes, but also his personal collection of classical paintings and sculptures. Experiencing Thorvaldsen’s work alongside the art that inspired him gives a fascinating insight into the artist’s life. His works can also be seen at the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Do check works are on display before planning your visit.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFTAutumn, part of a set of four, $ 3,800, Timothy Corrigan; Day and Night c1825, brass repoussé, £1,449.85, for the pair, Acroterion at 1st Dibs; roundel 5 depicting Winter, £ 222, Amiska