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berthel thorvaldsen
(1770–1844, Copenhagen)

Caritas. Black chalk on thin ivory colored wove paper. 17.9 x 11 cm. Signed and dated: A Thorvaldsen /Roma le 12 luglio 1810.

On March 8, 1797 Berthel Thorvaldsen arrived in Rome after a long, tiring journey. In later years he would always refer to this as the moment of his "rebirth". By 1802 he had already established his international reputation with his statue of Jason (Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen). The period between 1803 and 1819, Thorvaldsen’s so-called "classic period", marks stylistically and thematically a distinctive phase in the artist’s work, during which he achieved complete artistic maturity: he created a number of sculptures in which the Neoclassical ideal was perfectly represented and on which his fame as the most important sculptor of his time (next to Canova) was to be based.

The present drawing, dating from July 1810, is related to an important sculpture of this period, the relief of the Caritas, also from 1810, that exists in several marble and plaster versions. A line engraving by Francesco Garzoli of 1831 is ­probably the earliest graphic reproduction of this work (Intera Collezione di tutte le Opere inventate e scolpite dal Cav. Alberto Thorvaldsen, vol. I, Rome, Pietro Aureli, 1831, pl. 19). This ­relief represents one of the earliest examples of Thorvaldsen’s "flat relief style" (what Paul Ortwin Rave describes as his Flächenstil). The delicate forms of the female body and the ­drapery folds are rendered here with considerable care while the formal purity and the archaic severity of the composition ­suggests the antique funeral reliefs of the fifth century B.C. The motif of Caritas also differs iconographically from traditional depictions of the subject. The walking woman, dressed in a soft, flowing antique gown (peplos) and carrying a small child in her arms is accompanied by a boy, a detail that has its source in ­antique funeral monuments.

Our sheet assumes a special role within Thorvaldsen’s drawn oeuvre. The artist made many preparatory studies in pen and ink; their dynamic linework shows that they are clearly the work of a sculptor. They are also reminiscent of drawings by the Swedish artist Johan Tobias Sergel (1740›1814), who had also worked in Rome. In addition to these, Thorvaldsen made few, very delicately executed sheets that, in their elegance and beauty are equivalent to his sculptural style in the period between 1803 and 1819. The extremely careful draftsmanship here, almost suggesting silverpoint and the subtle tonal values between light and shade make Caritas a rare masterpiece of Thorvaldsen’s classic period. It is not clear, however, whether the drawing is a detailed preparatory study for the relief or rather a ricordo of it.