Loeb Danish Ardt Collection - page 1

NICOLAI ABRAHAM ABILDGAARD
    ‒      
Abildgaard is one of the major figures in the history of Danish art, the first history painter of note to
be trained in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, founded in

. His contribution as professor
and director there and as “Painter to the Court” marks him as the figure to whom Denmark owes its
national art, dating from the Enlightenment philosophy of the

th century. He occupies a prominent
place internationally among the history painters of his day.
Though Abildgaard grew up in di
ffi
cult financial circumstances, he was reared in a cultured
bourgeois family. After graduating from grammar school, his father, Søren Abildgaard, made his liv-
ing by drawing antiquities. Traveling round the country, he drew copies of historical relics such as
sepulchral monuments and inscriptions during the warm weather months and then made fair copies
of them during the winter, an undertaking financed by one of the king’s ministries. Nicolai’s brother,
Peter Christian Abildgaard (


) was a pioneer in the field of veterinary surgery, leaving a large
scientific output, not only writing, but also as a teacher. He was the founder of one of the first veteri-
nary schools in Europe.
Nicolai Abildgaard first became a journeyman painter, subsequently entering the Royal Danish
Academy of Fine Arts, where he passed quickly through the various classes. At the end of his train-
ing in

, he was awarded the major gold medal and thus the Academy’s major travel grant for six
years of study abroad. By then he had proven himself both independent and ambitious. It was obvi-
ous to the governing body of the Academy and to the king’s advisers that he was gifted as a history
painter, an important element in the justification for the Academy’s existence.
Abildgaard made a thorough study of the objectives of history painting—to depict subjects from
literature, history, mythology and religion and to present an idea by means of a figure composition.
Even before he left Denmark he was well-read and spoke several languages. The teaching at the Acad-
emy in Copenhagen was influenced by the fact that the first professors there were French or had been
trained in France and Rome and belonged to the most radical neo-classicists of their generation.
Among them were figures such as Johannes Wiedewelt (


), who had lived with the famous art
connoisseur J.J. Winckelmann (


) for a number of years. So Abildgaard was familiar with the
artistic debate of the period before arriving in Rome, and had the background to adopt an independ-
ent position.
Abildgaard spent the years of

to

in Rome studying antiquities and the Renaissance mas-
ters. He thought the most highly of Raphael, but he also admired Michelangelo. His studies show a
predilection for the violent, emotional manifestations of both hellenism and mannerism, which were
new approaches that interested the young artists in Rome at that time and found expression in an
idiom marked by pathos. It is found among his friends, the Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel
(


) and the idiosyncratic Swiss-British painter J.G. Füssli (


). Like Füssli and the
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