Anacreon, Ode III, first stanza [translation: Thomas Moore, 1869]
The celebrated Neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen was hailed as “the patriarch of the bas-relief” during his lifetime. This beautifully carved marble relief is typical of the sculptor's oeuvre, and is one of a handful of versions executed by the sculptor, including others in institutions: notably the Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, and the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
Thorvaldsen's composition is inspired by Anacreon’s Ode III, in which the ageing poet opens his home on a cold and rainy night to the infant Cupid, who seeks shelter. As he warms himself against the fire, Cupid asks Anacreon if he can test his bow, and plunges an arrow into the poet’s heart. Jubilant, Cupid flies off, delighted that his arrows can still inspire love.
Anacreon’s poem highlights the truth that older people can still feel desire. The obvious homoerotic connotations would not have been lost on Thorvaldsen or any of his contemporaries with a Classical education. The notion of Greek Love is implicit in both the poem and the relief. Such homosexual relationships, in which an older man (the erastes) would love a younger man (the eromenos), were deemed to be educational and were essentially seen as a rite of passage in Ancient Greece. Thorvaldsen’s composition plays upon the innate contrasts between those of the same gender: the older, bearded and muscular man, and the slender winged youth. Anacreon embodies experience and seriousness on the one hand, Cupid mischievous playfulness on the other. It is, however, Cupid who holds the power in Thorvaldsen’s depiction, as he thrusts his arrow into Anacreon’s heart, leaving the poet love sick; a warning, perhaps, against the foolishness of those who fall for youths in old age.
The present relief in fact inspired scorn from one English critic, Hawks Le Grice, who, after a visit to Thorvaldsen's studio, wrote in 1841: 'Nor time nor years can secure against the insidious arts of inordinate desire, if the proximate occasion of error be not avoided, or a willing ear be lent to the suggestions of passion under the guise of virtuous feeling. The angel of darkness sometimes assumes the form of an Angel of light; and even the trembling object of charity may prove the disguised instrument of vice, unless we unite the prudence of the serpent with the simplicity of the dove (Le Grice, op. cit., p. 67).
Laila Skjøthaug has confirmed that, in her opinion, the present relief is the one commissioned by Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, Count of Schönborn-Wiesentheid in 1823 and executed in 1824, but dispatched to the patron in 1840 (private correspondence). Previously, the Schönborn relief was assumed to be the one in the Landesmuseum, Oldenburg (inv. no. LM 014.019)(see Skjøthaug, op. cit.).
Schönborn also commissioned two reliefs said to symbolise Summer and Autumn. The present model, Cupid received by Anacreon, is thought to have represented Winter, and was commissioned as a pair with a relief depicting Cupid and Bacchus or Spring (a marble version is in the Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, inv. no. A797). Curiously, the Schönborn Cupid received by Anacreon appears to have been in the artist's studio many years later, since it is only recorded as being sent to Count Schönborn in 1840; this is confirmed by a letter from Johan Bravo to Thorvaldsen dated 29 April 1840 (Thorvaldsens Museum Archives, no. m23 1840, nr. 18).
The present composition was clearly successful since Thorvaldsen executed a number of versions. Aside from these two versions, there exists a plaster in the Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen (inv. no. A415), and a marble formerly in the collection of Thomas Hope (1769-1831) in the same museum (1824, presented to Hope 1828; inv. no. A827). Another, formerly in the collection of the Thorvaldsens Museum is now in the Kunstmuseum, Vejle (see Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1988, op. cit., no. 50). Further marble versions are in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (inv. no. Н.ск-1510) and at Christianelyst, Sophienholm, Denmark. Several additional versions are lunette shaped. One of these, thought to be that from the collection of Lord Norton, Hams Hall, Warwickshire, was sold together with three further reliefs representing Cupid and Bacchus, Pan teaching a Child Satyr and a Bacchante and a Child Satyr, at Sotheby’s New York on 30 January 2014, $2,405,000.
The present marble is carved with the precision and attention to detail for which Thorvaldsen is most celebrated. The attributes, such as the Cithara, the acorn-headed thyrsus, and the brazier from which flickering flames rise, are beautifully delineated. The contrast between the fur, feathered wings and smooth flesh is superlative.
Bertel Thorvaldsen (1768-1844): A Biography
Bertel Thorvaldsen (1768 or 1770-1844) was widely considered the greatest sculptor in Europe after the death of Antonio Canova, which is apparent from the abundance of noble and royal patronage he received throughout his career. Among his patrons were: Alexander I of Russia, King Ferdinand of Naples (equestrian statue, not executed), King Ludwig of Bavaria (a figure of Adonis and several classical and mythological subjects), Sir Thomas Hope (figure of Jason, a relief of Cupid received by Anacreon dated 1827, among other pieces) and a number of English nobility and cognoscenti. Moreover, in 1823, Thorvaldsen was commissioned to produce a tomb for Pope Pius VII, a mark of great official recognition.
Thorvaldsen was trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where he was taught by the sculptor Johannes Wiedewelt and the painter Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard. In 1793 the young artist distinguished himself by winning the Academy’s gold medal with his relief of the Apostles Peter and John Healing a Lame Man. In 1795 the Academy awarded the artist a scholarship to travel to Italy, and he began his journey in August 1796, arriving in Rome on 8 March 1797. He later remembered this date as his ‘Roman birthday’. During his time in Rome, Thorvaldsen received an important commission from the English connoisseur Thomas Hope, for a statue of Jason with the Golden Fleece (designed 1803). This major commission enabled the artist to remain in Rome, despite the expiry of his initial scholarship. The sculpture also saw him defining his individual style, departing from the works of Canova and adopting a more subdued, comparatively severe form of expression.
The success of the Jason prompted a flurry of commissions for classicising marbles by Thorvaldsen. The artist often deliberately selected similar subject matter to Canova’s famous figures, such as the Hebe and the Three Graces, in order to accentuate the ways in which he deviated from his predecessor. From 1804-6, he executed a great number of classicising marbles, including Bacchus, Apollo, Hebe and a Ganymede, themes to which he returned throughout the following decades. In 1819 Thorvaldsen visited Denmark. On his way there and back to Rome in 1820, he travelled through Italy, Poland and Germany, along the way receiving commissions for numerous important works, which occupied him in his studio throughout the 1820s and 1830s. In 1838, after years of uninterrupted occupation, Thorvaldsen decided to return to Denmark, to lead a more peaceful life and establish a museum for his art collection. The museum in Copenhagen, designed by Gottlieb Bindesbøll, was opened in 1848 and was the first public museum building in Denmark.
Bertel Thorvaldsen 1770-1844. Scultore danese a Roma, 1989-1990, exh. cat., Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderne, Rome, p. 184, no. 50; Künstlerleben in Rom - Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 - 1844), exh. cat., Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, and Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, 1992, pp. 669-670, no. 8.16; Jørnæs, B. (2003). Thorvaldsen [Thorwaldsen], Bertel. Grove Art Online. Retrieved 28 May. 2018, from http:////www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000084718.
Sotheby's would like to warmly thank Laila Skjøthaug of the Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, for her kind assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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