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0019 Patrick Kragelund, "Man müsse keine Statue équestre machen": Abildgaard and Schadow in Copenhagen 1791

RIHA Journal 0019 | 21 March 2011

"Man müsse keine Statue Equestre machen": Abildgaard and Schadow in Copenhagen 1791*

Patrick Kragelund

Peer-review and editing organized by:

Danmarks Kunstbibliotek / The Danish National Art Library, Copenhagen


Claudia Czok, Thomas Lederballe


In connection with the project of erecting an equestrian statue for King Frederick the Great of Prussia, the Berlin sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow was in the autumn 1791 sent on a research tour to the three Baltic capitals, Stockholm, St. Petersburg and Copenhagen. Here he studied and discussed similar recent projects with fellow artists, and brought reports back to Berlin on the equestrian statues by Pierre Hubert L'Archevêque and Johan Tobias Sergel (Gustavus Adolphus in Stockholm), by Étienne Maurice Falconet (Peter the Great in St. Petersburg) and by Jacques François Joseph Saly (Frederick V in Copenhagen). Documents not previously published throw new light on the contacts Schadow during these travels established with the Danish painter Nicolai Abildgaard, a contact, it is here argued, that strengthened Schadow's commitment to use a historically accurate, more realistic and less idealised stylistic idiom when depicting great figures from the national past.



  1. A hitherto unpublished letter from the German sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764-1850)1 to the Danish painter Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809) throws new light on the friendship and shared artistic ideals of these two artists. The link between Schadow and Abildgaard was not of course unknown. In a recent series of Abildgaard exhibitions, in Paris, Hamburg and Copenhagen, the Kunsthalle in Hamburg2 not only highlighted the links with his two perhaps most famous foreign pupils, Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich,3 the exhibition also included a version of the relief produced by Schadow in 1791 as a membership piece for the Royal Danish Academy.4 On presenting a cast (fig. 1) of the relief to the Academy, Schadow was on the 27th December 1791 elected as a member of that body; later he also presented a cast of his Mars.5 According to a tradition reported by Bertel Thorvaldsen's first biographer, Just Mathias Thiele, Abildgaard had when seeing Schadow's Bacchus and Ariadne challenged his young pupil to produce something similar; casts of Thorvaldsen's companion pieces were, along with that of Schadow, sold in large numbers; one is still exhibited alongside Schadow's in the Academy's assembly rooms.6

1 Johann Gottfried Schadow, Bacchus und Ariadne, 1791, cast from original, 48,5 x 60,5 cm. Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, inv. no. KS 424 (photograph © Danish National Art Library)

  1. However, the link was by no means only of such indirect nature. During Schadow's stay in Copenhagen in late 1791, there is evidence showing that contacts were close and discussions lively, with strong focus on burning political and artistic issues. Adding to this, the letter from Schadow, now in the Danish Royal Library, suggests that these discussions along with what Schadow saw of Abildgaard's art, had a corroborating impact on Schadow's artistic vision, thus adding a new aspect to the links between Abildgaard and German art "Um 1800" (to quote the title of Werner Hofmann's seminal Hamburger Kunsthalle exhibitions from 1974 to 1979 to which the exhibition in 2009 was a belated, but welcome new addition). In what follows, discussion will first survey the evidence for contacts between the two artists and then address the documents concerning Schadow's stay in Copenhagen, looking closely at the nature and common background of what, in crucial aspects, were the shared artistic ideals of the two artists.


Schadow's Baltic Tour

  1. In 1822, when visiting Berlin, the young Danish art historian Niels Laurits Høyen (1798-1870) was presented to Schadow, at that time the Director of the Berlin Art Academy. Schadow had numerous Danish contacts. During their years of study in Rome, his two sons had, for instance, become close friends of the, by then, already internationally renowned Bertel Thorvaldsen.7 But to Høyen's surprise, Schadow's links to Denmark reached further back. In 1791, he had visited Copenhagen and met the leading artists. As Høyen reports, Schadow "had been a close friend of our late Abildgaard and speaks of his talent and works with great respect".8 In Schadow's diary there is, however, no further comment;9 and Høyen never subsequently seems to have raised the issue. But his reference to Schadow's talk of Abildgaard's "talent and works" is, as we shall see, significant.

  2. The two may already have met when Abildgaard in January 1788 visited Berlin. Here the then director of the Copenhagen Academy was splendidly entertained by Schadow's patron, the influential minister F.A. von Heinitz. During Schadow's visit to Copenhagen he was elected as a member of the Academy. The following year Abildgaard, probably as a polite quid pro quo, received similar honours from the Berlin Academy, in response entering two paintings shown at the Berlin Academy exhibition in 1793.10

  3. But whatever the date of their first meeting, there are, after 1791, further references to their acquaintance in a letter from a Danish architect and army officer, Hans Rustad to Abildgaard from July 1798 (Rustad was in Berlin to present his plans for a memorial to Frederick the Great).11 From the letters, which Schadow during his Nordic travels in 1791 sent his wife, one gets a clear idea as to who most probably established the contact. Repeatedly there are greetings to Abildgaard's close friend, the engraver Johan Clemens (1749-1831), who, during those years, worked in Berlin, Clemens and his French wife Jeanne clearly having become part of the city's artists' colony.12

  4. The reason for Schadow's visit in Copenhagen was the decision to raise a memorial to King Frederick the Great in Berlin. The project, that seriously came on the agenda soon after the king's death in 1786, was for decades endlessly debated, launched and relaunched, after much turmoil finally to be brought to splendid fruition by Schadow's pupil Christian Rauch in 1851, more than half a century after it had first been suggested.

  5. In its original stages in 1790, Schadow had been the strongest candidate to obtain the commission that then, on the king's command, had envisaged an equestrian statue "in the Roman dress [...] like Marcus Aurelius, but riding on a calmly forward moving Prussian horse"; it was further stipulated that the king, returning in victory, should be crowned with laurels.13 The official insistence on the Roman dress gave rise to much public debate, many of the contributors clearly preferring that the late monarch be represented in his customary, almost iconic uniform.14 Nor was Roman dress what Schadow and his powerful patron, Minister von Heinitz had wanted.15 A much debated and strongly divisive aesthetic issue that contrasts the timeless, poetic and elevated with the individual and time-bound, this was, as we shall see, a debate that also had links with hotly-debated new ways of viewing society and the monarch's role in a future new order. For Schadow's artistic vision, the issue would turn out to be of lasting importance. Neither was he alone in favouring these new aesthetic ideals. In what looks like a strategically well-planned attempt eventually to sway the royal directive, it was suggested and agreed that Schadow should be sent abroad to study how the technique of casting as well as the question of style (classical or contemporary?) had been handled in similarly prestigious projects in the three Baltic capitals, Copenhagen, Stockholm and St. Petersburg.

  6. The itinerary was chosen with care. In Britain there were of course numerous such equestrian monuments (even New York could, for a brief while, boast its own George III), but few were seen to have sufficient artistic merit to merit an inspection.16 From a continental perspective, as expressed by the French Pierre Patte, Britain was remarkably undemonstrative when it came to honouring its monarchs17 (an attitude that of course did little to allow the genre to prosper). In France, by contrast, the Sun King's preference for this type of monument had resulted in a rare efflorescence.18 As a result no other nation could offer such a wealth of prestigious examples, in the capital as well as provinces, but in 1791 revolutionary turmoil made travelling difficult. After Italy (where Schadow had already been) these circumstances left the Baltic as the obvious field of study. Here, the courts of Copenhagen and Stockholm had, within the previous three decades, invested in staggeringly costly projects, contracting with French sculptors, whose expertise in the field for natural reasons was second to none, to erect equestrian statues of two great monarchs. Here were examples to study and experts to consult, but Schadow, with his own agenda to pursue, succeeded in adding St. Petersburg to his itinerary. It is a fair assumption that the inclusion of the equally recent and certainly no less renowned Russian project was an attempt by Schadow and his backers to rope in the support of the most outspoken adherent of a modern style, the French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet who famously had published his modernist views on the issue in his account of the genesis of the Petersburg monument to Peter the Great – and in the process provocatively debunked the otherwise canonical Marcus Aurelius.19

  7. With his Quadriga and other sculptures (1789-93) for the Brandenburger Tor Schadow had already documented his mastery of the classical idiom, but on the issue of style his ideals were, equally clearly, divided, his projects for statues of General von Ziethen (1790-94) as well as for Frederick the Great (1791-93) proving his talent for working in a style fusing the monumental with elements of the contemporary and realistic. For his project, a visit to Copenhagen with Jacques François Saly's equestrian statue of Frederick V (1771) would offer an opportunity to discuss the pros et cons of a project very similar to what had officially been prescribed in Berlin, the Danish King Frederick having also been portrayed in the guise of a Roman imperator, crowned with laurels (as had also been prescribed for the planned monument in Berlin); in fact, King Frederick's Danish horse is in a sense all that provides a vestige of local colour (fig. 2).

  8. Stockholm, on the other hand, could be said to represent a powerful antidote. Of course Pierre Hubert L'Archevêque's then unfinished equestrian statue (c. 1760-96) of Gustavus II Adolphus shows the great Protestant crusader crowned with the classical laurels of victory but from the shoulders down the king is shown wearing characteristic 17th century armour, cuirass, heavy iron mail and all.20 In Schadow's enthusiastic comment, here there was "no foreign dress, no Roman soldier mantel" ([k]eine fremde Tracht, kein römischer Soldatenrock). Interestingly, L'Archevêque also chose such emphatically historical costume for his bronze monument from 1762 to Sweden's national hero and subsequent king, Gustavus Vasa (c. 1496-1560). Clearly, toga and classical nudity was in this context no option: instead, L'Archevêque drew on a 16th century portrait of almost iconic status.21

2 Johan Martin Preisler, Saly's equestrian statue of Frederick V at Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen, 1770, double folio. The Royal Library, Copenhagen. Müllers Pinakothek 6, 34, fol plus (photograph © The Royal Library, Copenhagen)

3 Johann Gottfried Schadow, drawing showing Sergel's project for the statues placed on the pedestal of the statue of King Gustavus Adolphus, 1791, pen and grey wash, 48,8 x 27,2 cm, with Schadow's own annotation. Berlin, Akademie der Künste, inv. no. 779. Here reprod. from Hans Mackowsky, Johann Gottfried Schadow: Jugend und Aufstieg 1764-1797, Berlin 1927, pl. 61 (photograph provided by Danish National Art Library)

  1. In the late 1770's Sergel inherited the equestrian project from his old mentor. King Gustavus III now commissioned the two statues adorning the monument's pedestal (of which Schadow saw and admired the recently completed models (fig. 3)). These statues represent the reign's great chancellor Count Oxenstierna and Clio, the Muse of History – a juxtaposition enabling Sergel's patron King Gustavus to stress the (in fact troubled and precarious) old concord between the Swedish king and nobility.

4 Tobias Sergel, original cast model for the statues of Count Oxenstierna and Clio, 1789. Stockholm, the Royal Palace (photograph © Danish National Art Library)

  1. In choice of style, Sergel responded brilliantly to his mentor's lead. During his visit in France in 1778, he had seen some of the most remarkable recent attempts – such as Augustin Pajou's Descartes (1777)22 – to portray les grands hommes as they had appeared to their contemporaries.23 In accordance with these new stylistic ideals, Sergel's statues for the monument's pedestal show Oxenstierna in the chancellor's official 17th century court apparel, a heavy double-waisted coat adorned with elaborate embroidery, ribbons and buttons and with knee-length breeches to match (fig. 4). Oxenstierna is dictating the account of the king's heroic deeds to a suitably classical Clio, this allegorical figure being the only main component confirming the genre's links with the classical world. Here was a project that in its fusion of historical accuracy and monumentality, the characteristic and the timeless, came close to the way Schadow no doubt wanted to proceed.

  2. Schadow's admiration for Sergel's genius was profound, but at the same time he seems to have been conscious that this was an artist who was little known outside Sweden and whose example would not necessarily carry much weight with the Berlin authorities. This may well have been one of the reasons why, at this point in his travels, he improvised by prolonging his itinerary also to include St. Petersburg, thus obtaining full documentation on the famous project, completed in 1782, that in many respects represented a new, avowedly anticlassical departure. All Europe had heard or read about Falconet's Peter the Great, the sculptor himself being a clever proponent of his provocative new ideas. His Czar was of course crowned with laurels but his dress was neither classical nor modern. Instead it was, Falconet had argued, timeless (like many others, Schadow misunderstood this, taking the Czar's dress to be typically Russian).24 However, what stunned (and still stuns) spectators is the sheer technical bravura of it all, the Czar on the rearing horse, high upon its "natural", but at the same time symbolic and eponymous rock (fig. 5).

5 Etienne-Maurice Falconet, equestrian statue of Peter the Great, 1782, St. Petersburg. Anonymous photograph from before 1917 (photograph © Danish National Art Library)

  1. Here there was, in short, much to learn in terms of technique, but when it came to style, Stockholm was in its marked preference for the historical and characteristic at the centre of Schadow's attention. Returning to Stockholm in October 1791, he then and there penned a report to the Academy's powerful patron, Minister von Heinitz, outlining what he had seen and heard up to that time.25 Along with letters to his wife this report has been preserved and fully edited whereas letters illustrating what happened on the final part of his journey, during his visit to Copenhagen, have all been lost. Or so, at least, it has sometimes been claimed. Along with the letter to Abildgaard, a close look at Schadow's papers in Berlin can however throw new light on his stay in Copenhagen. As for the advice he received in Stockholm, there is, moreover, a letter from Sergel26 suggesting that Schadow when going to Copenhagen was still looking for artists of great and acknowledged standing to back his own preference for the contemporary. As it shall here be argued, he found one such artist in Abildgaard – which goes a long way towards explaining why, three decades later, he would talk with such admiration of Abildgaard's "talent and works".

  2. Not that Sergel had been unsympathetic. In Schadow's report from early 1792 (Appendix I) he is even quoted as being entirely in favour. Which is where a letter, that has only recently been edited, holds a surprise, because when Schadow, apparently after his return to Berlin, wrote Sergel asking him (once again) to state his view on the matter, Sergel would, in late February 1792 (cf. Appendix II), reply that he, as an artist, could recommend nothing but the antique dress.27 "You ask me about the statue's costume. As an artist I can but reply that the dress of antiquity is preferable to the characteristic because of its simplicity and nobility. There is no question at all which is the most handsome" (Vous me fait une question sur le costume de la Statue. Comme artist je ne puis vous repondre que l'ancien habillement est preferable a ceu typique par la simplicité et noblesse, on ne doit pas même mettre en question le quelle est le plus beau). Sergel agrees that the contemporary costume would please "public opinion" (opignon publique), but, contrary to how his attitude has often been described,28 he is, as an artist, remarkably reluctant to accept the very premise of this new aesthetic: "As for me I see the matter as an artist. The most handsome costume is the one that satisfies the eye, that makes the human form most visible, without it being altered from head to feet" (Pour moi je ne vois que comme Artist. Le plus beaux costume est cellui qui satisfait l'euille, dont les formes de la nature humaine sont la plus visible, sans être alterré par un marque depuis la tête aux pieds).

  3. But Sergel was also a pragmatic man, who not only understood Schadow's preference for the contemporary but also admitted that if this was what was decided, it was also the most unproblematic solution since this was what men of letters would prefer. Where a classical guise would make them cry: "We are no Romans! We are Prussians!", Sergel would – when no longer speaking as an artist – agree that contemporary costume would truthfully show "future centuries how the Great Frederick had been dressed when he at the head of his army had overcome his enemies" (pour les ciecles a venir, comment etait habillé le Grand Frederick quand a la tête de son armé il a bravé ses Ennemis).


Schadow's Ausführlicher Bericht

  1. So, when Schadow headed for Copenhagen, he may well have felt that he needed somewhat more unambiguous backing. Falconet and the Russian artists could be counted among his allies and, in his practice, so was Sergel, but, if the letter of the latter is a reliable guide (and it is hard to see why it should not be) Sergel, when it came to formulating an aesthetic policy, was by no means as wholeheartedly favourable as Schadow could have wanted. The indications are that Copenhagen offered him an artist who in theory as well as practice was fully in tune with Schadow's own inclinations. On this final leg of his journey it is true that we lack Schadow's letters – but the results and importance of his visit are by no means undocumented. At the core stand two documents, a report submitted to the Berlin Academy in early January 1792 and the letter, that Schadow in 1800 sent to Abildgaard, and that here is published for the first time.

  2. While postponing discussion of the letter to the next section, the document with which to begin is Schadow's official report to the Berlin Academy. Of this paper, there is in the Zentralarchiv of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin a transcript that Julius Friedländer – a scholar who in this field has earned signal and well deserved renown – used as a draft when preparing his edition of Schadow's writings in 1864. Whatever one's editorial standards, this choice of preferring a later transcript to the original is of course in itself unfortunate, all the more so since Friedländer in the process of instructing the printer how to proceed, chose to change the transcript's orthography, delete a number of passages and rephrase others. The result, which was reprinted in Friedländer's well-known second edition of 1890 and once again in 1980 may well be more fluent, but, as we shall see, it is – for a number of reasons – far from adequate.29

  3. What firstly matters (and what often has gone unacknowledged) is that Friedländer misunderstood the nature of the document when describing it as a draft for a lecture from 1791. In fact it postdates Schadow's return from Copenhagen in early January 1792 whence he, as has now become clear (see below), is known to have left just after New Year 1792. It is unfortunate, secondly, that Friedländer furnished the report with a title almost identical to that of Schadow's first report from October 1791: Ueber die bronzenen Arbeiten zu Stockholm und St. Petersburg. This misnomer obscures the fact that this second document also reports what Schadow had seen and heard in Copenhagen. As Hans Mackowsky well knew (and a consultation of the original in the Prussian Geheimes Staatsarchiv30 confirms) this is no mere lecture, but what otherwise is referred to as Schadow's Ausführliche Bericht, the official "Comprehensive Report" summarising the results of his travels and his enquiries concerning the views of the leading artists of Stockholm, St. Petersburg and Copenhagen on the question of style and costume. The original, which survives in a draft and an emended transcription, is in its final version datable to between the 8th and 14th January 1792, when Schadow, immediately after his return from Copenhagen presented it to the Berlin Academy.

  4. But as we shall see, Schadow's known time schedule suggests that he wrote most, if not the entire first version of the report, while he was still in Copenhagen. Here, briefly, the core dates: Leaving Stockholm by 28th October, he would have arrived in Copenhagen by early November, where he apparently met all who counted (and more).31 A lively and engaging person, with a well-developed middle class self-awareness, Schadow also partook in the city's social life, later recalling how at a ball he had seen the Crown Prince dancing with a commoner's wife. "This would indicate that a middle class attitude (ein bürgerlicher Ton) had spread out to all layers of society" as he with evident satisfaction commented.32 The said ball was a semi-public ballo in maschera at the court theatre of the royal palace of Christiansborg on 14th November 1791.33 In December, when he was elected member of the Academy, journals duly reported the honour, finally announcing on 6th January 1792 that "Mr. Schado, Prussian Court Sculptor" had left for Berlin.34 The distance Copenhagen-Berlin was normally covered in four to five days, so it is a natural assumption that a well researched report, rich in allusion to classical and modern art, which at the latest had been submitted by the 14th January, had in the main been written while he was still in Copenhagen.

  5. From the report it is clear that Schadow, during this roughly two month stay, had discussed the issue of his travels with a series of Danish artists, but in his Bericht a central passage (Appendix I) highlights the importance of his discussions with "Abilgaard [und] Harsdorff". In the original Schadow had first included the miniature painter Cornelius Høyer in the group, but later he deleted this reference, probably because he realised that quoting Høyer might prove counterproductive. The year before, Høyer had – without succeeding in maintaining his anonymity – published a scathing review of the Berlin Academy's annual exhibition.35 To enrol him as an ally would therefore hardly be helpful.

  6. Instead, Schadow focuses on Abildgaard and Harsdorff and distinguishes between four views, first numbering the artists (i) favouring a Roman costume, then (ii) moving on to those who saw no obstacle to the modern costume. It is here he not only lists his Russian colleagues, but – perhaps somewhat misleadingly – also Sergel whose letter (Appendix II) suggests that his practice was far more unambiguously in favour than were his own aesthetic attitudes. In any case, Schadow rounds off this section quoting a Swedish example (left out by Friedländer). There was, he argues, no way that one could depict the warrior king Charles XII in anything but his historical costume. Here, the Roman style would "cause offence" (choquiren).

  7. With a new paragraph (an emphasis not acknowledged by Friedländer) Schadow then turns to the third and fourth point of view, as argued by "Abilgaard [und] Harsdorff in Coppenhagen". Their basic view was, simply put, "that one should make no equestrian statue". Coming from the Danish king's first painter and first architect, this is a statement that should arouse scholarly curiosity. After all, the very foundation of the Copenhagen Academy had been intimately linked to the project of erecting precisely such a statue, the project having been part of a large scale commemoration of the tercentenary of the ruling dynasty as well as the hundredth anniversary of the introduction of absolutism. As a companion and parallel to Abraham César Lamoureux's equestrian statue from 1687 of Christian V, the first of Denmark's absolutist kings, that of Saly portraying that monarch's great grandson had in 1771 become the centrepiece of the new royal square of Amalienborg, situated in the far-flung New City named after the royal hero (fig. 6).

  8. Riding high on its pedestal, framed by an architectural octagon consisting of four new aristocratic residences and facing the church vowed to celebrate three centuries of divine benevolence, this was a statue and setting that gave graphic expression to the centralist ideals of absolutism – but this, said Abildgaard and Harsdorff, was no longer the kind of monument they would endorse. And, what is more, this was in fact a view that Schadow (in yet another passage omitted by Friedländer) had heard many people advocate.

6 Johan Martin Preisler (after drawing by L.A. Le Clerck), The royal square of Amalienborg with Saly's equestrian statue of Frederick V and Nicholas-Henri Jardin's project for Frederick's Church, 1766, Folio (photograph provided by Danish National Art Library)

  1. Given the timing such sentiments need not surprise. In 1791, the French Revolution was still in its early, relatively peaceful and certainly Pre-Terror stage. Throughout Europe fears and opposition were of course voiced, but the predominant reaction was one of enthusiasm and applause for what was widely seen as a new dawn of equality and freedom. These were clearly sentiments shared (if more or less wholeheartedly) by some of the Nordic artists Schadow had encountered, Sergel for instance sending him greetings of "viva Bac[c]o et surtout la cara Libertà", defining the latter as "ma divinité favourite La Liberté".36 During his travels, Schadow himself is in his private letters repeatedly voicing impatience with aristocratic arrogance,37 years later still expressing his admiration for the strong bourgeois sentiment of Copenhagen society. What matters here, however, is the attitude of his Copenhagen hosts. Of Harsdorff's views there is no evidence, but it is now recognised that Abildgaard was an enthusiastic supporter of the political ideals of the French Revolution, and that this, moreover, was an attitude that already by the time of Schadow's visit had landed the court painter in deep trouble. When Abildgaard suggested celebrating the reform policy of the Crown Prince's government in a painting for the Great Hall of the royal palace, the court had in late 1789 backed down, refusing to let him employ an iconography of liberty. This veto apparently led to conflict; in any case, when Abildgaard had completed the said painting he was, in early 1791, sacked and the project on which he had worked since 1778 brought to a halt.

  2. In bold response, Abildgaard, later that spring, appealed for public support to erect a Liberty Column, complete with French inspired symbols of liberté and egalité. In a capital where enthusiasm was running high both for the domestic reform policy and for what had begun happening in France, the Liberty Column initiative that had its most notable artistic spokesman in Abildgaard met with unprecedented support. In Denmark, the project constitutes a watershed in public attitudes. From public art being an almost exclusively royal domain, for the subjects to finance and humbly admire, the Liberty Column (1792-97) represents the moment when the Danish third estate for the first time began arrogating for itself a say in such matters.38 It is against this rapidly shifting political background that one should see Abildgaard's high-handed rejection of the genre that more than any other epitomises the status of absolutist monarchs. This was now, as he saw it, becoming a thing of the past.

  3. In Schadow's report, however, the following paragraph brings in a sobering note of realism. Such decisions were of course neither Abildgaard's nor Schadow's to make. So if the project was already decided, it was his hosts' advice consistently to adopt the less elevated style of "portrait through and through" (ganz Portrait), giving the sitter a "noble, but not alien aspect" (veredelt aber nicht fremd).

  4. This was a suggestion that clearly appealed to Schadow's own artistic vision. In support his report repeatedly returns to the bland anonymity of the classicising idiom. Quoting from Saly's writings39 (of which Schadow made a manuscript copy, presumably while in Copenhagen)40 he argues that while that sculptor had aimed at what he himself called "a kind of deification" (einer Art von Vergötterung),41 he had in fact deprived the subject of all individuality, making his king look exactly like any other. To prove this latter point, Schadow proceeds to quote an anecdote (on which, in fact, he elaborates from his first to his second manuscript version). As the old Danish master engraver J.M. Preisler (1715-94) had told Schadow, his official engraving (fig. 2) showing Saly's Frederick V had, in Paris, mistakenly been assumed to represent the King of France, Louis XV.42 Such timeless anonymity was not what Schadow wanted for his project – and in his search for alternative models, it is now time to look closer at the evidence from his letter to Abildgaard.


Schadow's letter

  1. The letter (Appendix III) illustrates what probably strengthened his resolve to consider a portrait the proper stylistic approach for his proposed monument. It shows that Schadow, during his visit, had been taken to see Abildgaard's paintings at the royal palace of Christiansborg. From 1778 till he was sacked in 1791 Abildgaard worked on the initial part of this grand project involving ten paintings and ten grisailles illustrating the history of Denmark under the Oldenburg dynasty. What Schadow saw in late 1791 was in short all that was completed (save three paintings all was lost in the palace fire three years later). The series had clearly left Schadow impressed. He praises its quality and offers his condolences (which of course was all as it should be), but it is when, in his letter, he returns to the issue of their discussions back in 1791 that he suddenly becomes specific, making it clear what he had particularly admired.

  2. Happily for Schadow, the new King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III (1797-1840), "felt bored by always having to see some Greeks and Romans" (s'ennuit à voir toujours des Grecs et des Romains). What he wanted was national history43 – a circumstance which now brings Schadow back to the subject of Abildgaard's lost paintings. In itself a valuable eye witness report, it adds of course to the value of Schadow's comment that it comes, not from a mere admirer, but from an artist appreciating solutions to problems that he himself was facing. In a world of widespread enthusiasm for all things classical, Schadow's determination to hold on to a stylistic idiom aimed at capturing the individual and characteristic continued to be criticised. This had also been the case with the statue of Leopold von Anhalt-Dessau that he had just finished. Some years earlier, when presenting its model, Schadow had told the Queen of Prussia, "Against Prussian costume in sculpture many cry out in protest, above all poets and artists",44 a statement verified when this same monument in the autumn 1800 triggered Goethe's virulent attack on what he saw as the "prosaic spirit of the age" (prosaische Zeitgeist) so characteristic of the Berlin artists – and above all of Schadow. In his attack Goethe would sternly warn against what he saw as an artistic trend threatening to let "Poetry be supplanted by History, Character and the Ideal by Portrait […], General Humanity by the Patriotic" (Poesie wird durch Geschichte, Charakter und Ideal durch Porträt […] das allgemein Menschliche durchs Vaterländische verdrängt).45 Ultimately drawing upon Aristotle's famous distinction in the Poetics between the timeless, more philosophical realm of poetry as opposed to the realm of history dominated by the time bound and purely accidental, the debate between Goethe and Schadow reflects what Werner Hofmann has rightly characterised as an unresolved dilemma of late eighteenth century aesthetics.46

  3. When looking for his own artistic solutions to this dilemma it seems clear that on his Nordic travels, Schadow received vital stimuli, from Falconet, from Sergel and, it now emerges, also from Abildgaard, who not only in practice had demonstrated his familiarity with the aesthetic issues involved, but who in an essay published in 1786 quotes and often agrees with Falconet's criticism of tendencies blindly to exaggerate the quality of ancient art.47 It is against this background one should see Schadow's desire (Appendix III)

that our painters could have seen your paintings in the Great Hall (i.e. of the Copenhagen royal palace) that proved so well that one can be at least as interesting by using the costume of the modern ages as by using that of antiquity. It (i.e. the modern costume) is closer to and more in harmony with our manners, but it gives perhaps greater problems in treating than the other.

(Je souhaiterais que nos peintres eussent vu vos tableaux de la grande Salle, qui prouvaient bien que l'on peut etre avec le costume des temps modernes au moins aussi intéressant, qu'avec l'ancien. Il est plus voisin et plus conforme a nos moeurs, mais il donne peut etre plus d'embarras a le traiter que l'autre.)

  1. A pioneer in illustrating such "sublime" poets as Ossian48 and Shakespeare, Abildgaard is at the same time a painter, who drew much inspiration from antiquity, from its poets, history and drama as well as from its art. However, Schadow's letter re-evokes aspects of Abildgaard's art that in his own day were at least equally renowned. Sketches and contemporary reports confirm that the lost paintings for the royal palace represented a boldly conceived foray into a new realist style in depicting the national past. Adorning the lower section of three walls of a total length of eighty meters (20 + 40 + 20), the shorter initial and final sections on each of the hall's two short walls were both allegorical, one dealing with the remote past, the other with the glorious present. In these sections Abildgaard had held on to the traditional style and vocabulary of official history painting, a choice markedly contrasted by his adoption of a new, realist style for the long central section with all the kings from the late 16th century till the early 18th. Here, there were no classical personifications, no divine light from above and no angels heralding celestial benevolence. Even in the series' two central panels with indoor scenes illustrating the crucial transition from elective to absolutist monarchy, the style was demonstratively realistic, with portraits, historical records and the study of original locations providing the basis on which the painter recreated a historically "correct" setting for the events depicted (fig. 7a-b).49 This was a choice that by no means had appealed to all, a well-informed, high-ranking foreign visitor for instance criticising this choice of stylistic idiom for reducing the paintings' protagonists to the level of "madmen", "burghers" and "corporals".50 For others it was, however, this modern section that held the strongest appeal,51 another foreign visitor52 comparing the result with the works of the leading exponent of a modern, realist style, the American history painter Benjamin West (1738-1820).53 It was no doubt also this latter aspect that had appealed to Schadow. He, too, moved in circles that took a strong interest in the new developments in British history painting. Hence his admiration for paintings confirming "que l'on peut etre avec le costume des temps modernes au moins aussi intéressant, qu'avec l'ancien".

7 a / b Nicolai Abildgaard, King Frederick III receives the representatives of the Danish Estates who recognize the introduction of absolutism (1660) and King Christian V issues the Danish Common Law (1683), 1783 and 1784, oil on canvas, 61 x 37 cm (sketches for the lost paintings in the Great Hall of the royal palace of Christiansborg). Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, KMS 1139e and f (photograph © Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen)


Frederick the Great in Copenhagen and Sokratesin Berlin

  1. For both artists the visit seems to have been an inspiration. From Abildgaard there is no direct comment, but a drawing that not previously has been discussed in this context may well be the product of their meetings and discussions. In Abildgaard's oeuvre, this drawing, with its realistic style and near-contemporary motif is – apart from the Christiansborg paintings – almost unique. It represents an encounter between Frederick the Great and the French statesman, Count Mirabeau, the latter handing the king a document entitled Droits de l'homme (Fig. 8).

8 Nicolai Abildgaard, Mirabeau presenting the "Droits de l'homme" to King Frederick the Great, ca. 1789-93, pen, pencil and sepia, 12,5 x 15,9 cm, inscribed "Mirabeau et F2do". Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Department of Prints and Drawings inv. no. KKSgb 3730 (photograph © Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen)

  1. The drawing's rendering of the king's profile and trademark uniform calls to mind the kind of modern history painting in the style of Benjamin West for which the Berlin history painters during this period received numerous royal commissions and from which Abildgaard's friend, Johan Clemens had been summoned to Berlin to produce a large scale engraving for the patriotic market.54 The crucial difference between these works and that of Abildgaard is of course that for all the realism, for all the emphasis on the time bound and particular, the very situation with Mirabeau presenting the king (who died in 1786) the declaration on the Rights of Man from 1789 is an utterly unhistorical, poetic fiction that in symbolic manner brings together a leading exponent of enlightened despotism (whom Abildgaard had admired and whose writings he had studied)55 with one of the leading figures of the early French Revolution. Around the king, soldiers are sleeping, but the encounter is witnessed with interest by a suddenly awakened young man in the drawing's background.56 Clearly, this is the "dawn of a new day".

  2. The drawing reflects Abildgaard's deep interest, personally as well as artistically, in the developments in France.57 The autograph catalogue of his library58 illustrates how he between the summer 1789 and early 1793 bought numerous works on the Revolution and its new model for society, among these the discussions of the Declaration of the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke; his acquisitions from these years also reveal his interest in the writings of the great Mirabeau, his letters as well as his speeches.59

  3. The drawing seems roughly datable to between 1789 and 1793 when Mirabeau (who died in early 1791) was accused of having been the monarchy's secret agent, thus losing his status as a revolutionary icon; on its verso are drafts related to the project of the Column of Liberty (early 1791-early 1792), so a date during that period seems plausible. Given the evidence for Abildgaard's discussions with Schadow a new perspective seems worth considering. The drawing's almost unique experiment (in this oeuvre, that is) in combining the historic and near contemporary with the poetic and symbolic may well be a close echo of the very issues and dilemmas which had been central to his discussions with Schadow.

  4. As for Schadow there is likewise a possible and hitherto unacknowledged link to consider. In his letter there is, sadly, no reference to the work in question. Instead it offers some brief, and interesting comments on what he had himself recently produced, most notably the so-called Prinzessinnengruppe portraying Queen Louise and her sister. Interestingly, he here expresses his undisguised regret that what at the Academy exhibition of 1797 had been greeted as a masterpiece and is today perhaps his single best known work, in fact was "hidden away" (caché) – its undisguised erotic appeal probably being one of the reasons why the new king preferred to keep it out of public sight.60 The criticism of his statue of Leopold von Anhalt-Dessau (fig. 9), whom he indeed portrayed as "an old Prussian general […] of the last century and still sporting a moustache" (un vieux General prussien, [...] du siecle passé, qui porte encore la moustache) was at the time of writing still to come, but what matters here is the work that he completed that summer as an entry for the Academy exhibition opening 15th September 1800.

9 Johann Gottfried Schadow, Leopold von Anhalt-Dessau, 1798-1800, Bronze, 62 x 17,5 cm. Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. no. B I 244 (photograph © b p k Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte)

10 Johann Gottfried Schadow, Sokrates im Kerker, 1800, pen and brown ink, brown and blue wash, watercolour and white hightening over pencil and black chalk, 52,9 x 71,3 cm. Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. no. SZ Schadow 2 (photograph © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

  1. Schadow's Sokrates im Kerker61 is a large scale sepia composition showing the famous scene in the prison of Athens with Socrates bidding his friends farewell (fig. 10). Among the pupils, Schadow has, remarkably, portrayed Berlin's perhaps most outstanding Enlightenment philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, thereby affirming a close link between Socrates and his German-Jewish follower. In the present context it is, moreover, notable that the drawing discreetly seems to allude to a painting by Abildgaard that by different means but with similar emphasis creates a link between Socrates and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Of this work, Schadow doubtless knew the engraving by Clemens that the latter in 1787 had put on show at the Berlin Academy exhibition (fig. 11).62 The entry had clearly made an impression. The engraver Daniel Chodowiecki (1726-1801) who described his young colleague as "truly one of the ablest German engravers of this age", singled it out as among the finest works of that year, later listing it among the works by Clemens that brought him "much honour".63