High politics and the art of propaganda were centre stage when Thorvaldsens Museum opened its doors to the exhibition In Praise of Power. Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Thorvaldsen.
Thorvaldsen brought with him from Copenhagen a radical outlook partly deriving from his mentor in the Academy of Fine Art, the painter N.A. Abildgaard. And in Rome there is plenty to suggest that he shared the enthusiastic – and revolutionary – ideas of a new age for mankind that surfaced there in the years succeeding the French Revolution.
And at first, all Europe viewed Napoleon as the saviour of the free and equal people of the new age. But as Napoleon became increasingly despotic, the enthusiasm waned in many people. There are, however, no sources indicating Thorvaldsen’s personal view of Napoleon in 1812. His work suggests that, like countless other artists before and since, he turned to motifs for which there was a demand.
Thorvaldsen’s sculptures expressed the ideologies and values represented by the broad range of those commissioning him. Napoleon never undertook the planned visit to Rome in 1812 and so he never saw Thorvaldsen’s frieze. High politics and Napoleon’s lust for power got in the way of the journey to Rome. His empire collapsed and he was forced to abdicate in 1814.
The Alexander Frieze, however, ensured Thorvaldsen’s position as one of the leading artists in Europe, and news of his new masterpiece also reached Copenhagen. In 1818, he was commissioned to make a marble version of the frieze for Christiansborg Palace, which was at that time being built with C.F. Hansen as architect. Thorvaldsens Museum possesses the full-sized frieze both as an original model and as a plaster copy, and there is also a smaller marble version of the frieze in the museum.
Thorvaldsens Museum opened on 18 September 1848 and was the first public museum building in Denmark. The characteristic museum building was built to exhibit the extensive life’s work of the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) and today still looks more or less as it did when it opened over 150 years ago.
Thorvaldsens Museum also contains Thorvaldsen’s drawings and sketches for sculptures and reliefs. In addition Thorvaldsen was a passionate collector, so the museum also exhibits his extensive collections of paintings from his own time and collections of artworks and objects from Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquity. The museum also shows changing exhibitions that go into greater depth with aspects of the permanent collections, including contemporary art.