As customary for foreigners upon their arrival in the Eternal City, Thorvaldsen initially gravitated primarily around the community of his fellow Danish émigrés. Amongst them were the antiquarian and scholar Jörgen Zoëga (1755-1809), and the painter and critic Asmus Jacob Carstens (1754-1798), both of whom had significant influence on Thorvaldsen’s development as an artist, specifically with regards to his study of classical sculpture and of the theories of the noted archaeologist Johan Joachim Winkelmann. In 1797 Thorvaldsen opened his first Roman studio on Vicolo Aliberti, on the corner with Via del Babuino, a central thoroughfare then teeming with artists’ workshops, including that of the celebrated Antonio Canova.
By this time neo-classicism had taken hold in the city, and Antonio Canova was its greatest exponent. Thorvaldsen was in his late twenties, a generation younger than Canova, and made his first impression in Rome with a plaster group of Jason with the Golden Fleece, with a version in marble commissioned by the influential British connoisseur Thomas Hope. The money from this allowed him to stay on in Rome and commit to his studies of classical antiquity.
In 1818 Thorvaldsen returned to Copenhagen, where he was appointed professor at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, but already in 1820 he decided to make his way back to Italy, travelling via Germany, Poland and Austria. Upon Canova’s death two years later, Thorvaldsen became the most senior and respected sculptor in the city, as confirmed by commissions such as Pope Pius VII’s funerary monument in St Peter’s Basilica (1823-31), and appointments such as the presidency of the prestigious Accademia di San Luca (1828), a post previously held by Canova.
It is during this period of remarkable activity and success for Thorvaldsen that the present sculpture was acquired by Sir Michael Shaw Stewart, as recorded in a receipt of payment handwritten, signed and dated 17 April 1828 by the artist himself (fig. 1). The document, written in Italian, states that Thorvaldsen had received from “Milord Stewart” a hundred luigi d’oro, a sum that would have corresponded approximately to four hundred and fifty Italian scudi, a price that matches closely those commanded by other Thorvaldsen commissions from the same period.
In 1815, upon his arrival in Rome, John Campbell, Lord Cawdor, who commissioned Canova's bust of Peace sold in these rooms 4 July 2018 for £5,303,500, an ardent collector of antiquities himself and the first British patron of Canova, took Michael Shaw-Stewart to visit the acclaimed sculptor’s studio. Sir Michael’s diary records many visits (op. cit.) to Canova’s workshop including an occasion when he witnessed Canova working on the Three Graces. After his visit to Canova’s studio, Sir Michael continued on to Thorvaldsen’s workshop which he visited repeatedly until his departure for Scotland.
In 1827, Sir Michael set out again for the continent, this time accompanied by his wife, and the pair remained in Italy until the summer of 1828. A fascinating insight into their encounter with Thorvaldsen is offered by an 1837 letter from Lady Shaw Stewart to the 10th Duke of Hamilton, who had expressed a wish to own an autograph of the great Danish sculptor:
'Dear Mr Hamilton
Shortly after you called upon me one of my family became very unwell which occupied my thoughts a good deal, but he being now perfectly well I have remembered your wish to possess an autograph of Thorwaldsen. If you should shortly receive one from Norway or Denmark I sh.d be very glad indeed to have the enclosed back for it is rather an effort to me to part with it. Mr Knudtzon suggested the asking his friend to give a receipt & we stood by him in his studio while he wrote it. In case, by any chance, your friend who is collecting may meet with poor Lord Stuart & ask him about the statue I mention that the Purchaser was my Husband Sir Michael Shaw Stewart, & that the “Amorino” is at Ardgowan, Greenock where I wish you w.d Come & see it.
Ys very truly
EM Shaw Stewart
(Thorvaldsen Museum Archives, online)
Some time later, Hamilton duly returned ‘the enclosed’, the receipt of payment dated 17 April 1828 that accompanies the present sculpture to this day.
The marble statue described in both the receipt and the letter as “Amorino” represents Cupid, the ancient god of love, his left hand holding the tip of a bow and his right hand clutching an arrow. His wings, their feathers minutely described by the sculptor’s chisel, are open, suggesting the young deity may set off any minute to commit further mischief. The figure’s pose, with one leg bent slightly forward and the shoulders’ axis shifted to one side, is reminiscent of ancient Greek contrapposto statues, such as Praxiteles’s famous Doryphoros. However, the overall composition is an invention of Thorvaldsen, who worked through the composition in at least two drawings, today in the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen (inv. nos. C1042 & C1081), and first cast it in plaster around 1819, when he also executed the earliest marble version (both are preserved in the Thorvaldsen Museum, inv. nos. A36 & A819).
The 1819 marble version of the Amorino is mentioned in the travel diaries of King Christian VIII of Denmark (1786-1848), who saw it in Thorvaldsen’s studio in December 1821, after it had been damaged by the collapse of a floor in the building. The present statue appears instead in workshop records, which state that an “Amorino in Piedi” was begun in February 1826, with preparation of the marble carried out by an assistant named Amadeo, who had also worked on Jason and the Golden Fleece. The Amorino further progressed under two other assistants, Carlesi and Moise, until, in October 1827, it was entrusted to Pietro Bonanni (b. 1810), who later worked with Pietro Tenerani. Thorvaldsen would have carved the finer details and face of the sculpture before it was sent to the polisher in February 1828. Such detailed workshop accounts offer an interesting glimpse into Thorvaldsen’s studio practice and accurately trace the genesis of the sculpture. Thorvaldsen ran a large and well-organized studio practice, which ensured that his output was always of a very high quality. The presence of the workshop accounts for Cupid with his Bow show that this marble was made according to these rigorous practices, where specialist assistants focused on a particular aspect of the job, whether it be blocking out the marble or applying texture to the relevant surfaces, which were overseen by Thorvaldsen himself.
Different from the earlier plaster and marble, the present figure of Cupid stands on a circular base, and the position of his bow is adjusted, gracefully resting between his leg and the tree trunk, so as to create a more sinuous overall composition. Characteristic of Thorvaldsen is the present marble’s highly finished surface, which comes to life thanks to the contrast between the finely polished texture of Cupid’s flesh and the crisp, painstakingly picked out surfaces of the tree trunk and feathered wings, a technique that would be eagerly adopted by Thorvaldsen’s most talented pupil Pietro Tenerani. Equally distinctive of the Danish master is the combination of anatomical observation and idealization, which represent a response to his experience in Rome.
Distancing himself from Canova’s search for beauty through a more sensual expressionism, Thorvaldsen espoused a stricter approach to classical antiquity, endowing his figures with an almost rarefied sense of emotion. Indeed their movements, like their surfaces, appear to inhabit a world apart from that of the flawed human senses and closer to that of the Olympians they portray.
Elena di Majo et al., Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1770-1844: scultore danese a Roma, exh.cat., Rome, 1989;
Terry Jenkins, "SHAW STEWART. Sir Michael, 6th bt. of Ardgowan; Blackhall, Renfrew and 14 Carlton Terrace, Mdx.’, in D.R. Fisher (ed.): in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, London, 2009;
Bjarne Jørnæs, The Sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, Copenhagen, 2011;
Museen der Stadt, Köln, Bertel Thorvaldsen, 5 February - 3 April 1977, no. 55;
Strenna del Romanisti, 72, 2011, pp. 353-367
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