Categories: People

Nicolai Abildgaard

Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (Sep 11, 1743 – Jun 4, 1809) was a Danish neoclassical and royal history painter, sculptor, architect, and professor of painting, mythology, and anatomy at the New Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen, Denmark Many of his works were in the royal Christiansborg Palace, Fredensborg Palace, and Levetzau Palace at Amalienborg

Abildgaard had studied at the Academy from 1764 to 1767, then worked there as apprentice, and moved to Rome in 1772–1777, where he studied sculpture, architecture, decoration, frescoes and murals He returned to the Academy in Copenhagen, promoted to professor in 1778, and elected as Academy Director during 1789–1791 and 1801–1809 He was also assigned as a royal artist/decorator during 1780 to 1805 Abildgaard was married twice, in 1781 and 1803

Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard was born on September 11, 1743 in Copenhagen, Denmark, as the son of Søren Abildgaard, an antiquarian draughtsman of repute, and Anne Margrethe Bastholm

He was trained by a painting master before he joined the New Royal Danish Academy of Art (Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi) in Copenhagen, where he studied under the guidance of Johan Edvard Mandelberg and Johannes Wiedewelt He won a series of medallions at the Academy for his brilliance from 1764 to 1767 The large gold medallion from the Academy won in 1767 included a travel stipend, which he waited five years to receive He assisted Professor Mandelberg of the Academy as an apprentice around 1769 and for painting decorations for the royal palace at Fredensborg These paintings are classical, influenced by French classical artists such as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin Mandelberg had studied in Paris under François Boucher

Although artists of that time used to travel to Paris for further studies, but he chose to travel to Rome where he stayed from 1772 to 1777 He took a side trip to Naples in 1776 with Jens Juel His ambitions focused in the genre of history painting While in Rome, he studied Annibale Carracci’s frescoes at the Palazzo Farnese and the paintings of Rafael, Titian, and Michelangelo In addition he studied various other artistic disciplines (sculpture, architecture, decoration, wall paintings) and developed his knowledge of mythology, antiquities, anatomy, and perspective

In the company of Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel and painter Johann Heinrich Füssli, he began to move away from the classicism he had learned at the Academy He developed an appreciation for the literature of Shakespeare, Homer, and Ossian (the legendary Gaelic poet) He worked with themes from Greek as well as Norse mythology, which placed him at the forefront of Nordic romanticism

He left Rome in June 1777 with the hope of becoming professor at the Academy in Copenhagen He stopped for a stay in Paris and arrived in Denmark in December of the same year

Very soon after joining the academy he was honored with the designation of Professor in 1778 He worked as an academic painter of the neoclassical school From 1777 to 1794, he was very productive as an artist in addition to his role at the school He taught painting, mythology, and anatomy at the school He produced not only monumental works, but also smaller pieces such as vignettes and illustrations He designed Old Norse costumes He illustrated the works of Socrates and Ossian Additionally he did some sculpting, etching, and authoring He was interested in all manners of mythological, biblical, and literary allusion

He taught some famous painters, including Asmus Jacob Carstens, sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, and painters J L Lund and Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg; later both of them took over his position as professor at the Academy after his death Eckersberg, referred to as the “Father of Danish painting,” went on to lay the foundation for the period of art known as the Golden Age of Danish Painting, as professor at the same Academy

Around 1780 as royal historical painter, Abildgaard was requested by the Danish government to paint large monumental pieces, a history of Denmark, to decorate the entirety of the Knights’ Room (Riddersal) at Christiansborg Palace It was a prestigious and lucrative assignment The paintings combined not only historical depictions, but also allegorical and mythological elements that glorified and flattered the government The door pieces depicted, in allegory, four historical periods in Europe’s history Abilgaard used pictorial allegory like ideograms, to communicate ideas and transmit messages through symbols to a refined public who was initiated into this form of symbology Abildgaard’s professor Johan Edvard Mandelberg supplied the decorations to the room

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Abildgaard married Anna Maria Oxholm on March 23, 1781

He made a failed attempt to be elected to the post of Academy Director in 1787 and was unanimously elected to the post two years later, serving as director during the period 1789–1791 He had the reputation for being a tyrant and for taking as many of the academy’s monumental assignments as possible for himself

Abilgaard was also known as a religious freethinker and an advocate of political reform In spite of his service to (and in his artwork the glorification of) the government, he was hardly a great supporter of the monarchy or of the state church He supported the emancipation of the farmers and participated in the collection of monies for the Freedom Monument (Frihedsstøtten) in 1792 He contributed a design for the monument, as well as for two of the reliefs at its base He got caught into controversies at the end of the 18th century because of his controversial statements and satirical drawings He was inspired by the French Revolution, and in 1789–1790 he tried to incorporate these revolutionary ideals into the Knights’ Room at Christiansborg Palace However, the King rejected his designs

His showdowns with the establishment culminated in 1794, when his allegorical painting “Jupiter Weighs the Fate of Mankind” (Jupiter vejer menneskenes skæbne) was exhibited at the Salon He was politically isolated and cut out of the public debate by censors

The fire at Christiansborg Palace, in February 1794, also had a dampening effect on his career, for seven of the ten monumental paintings of the grandiose project were destroyed in that accident The project was stopped and so were his earnings

However, after that devastating fire accident, he started getting decorative assignments and also got the opportunity to practice as an architect He decorated the Levetzau Palace (now known as Christian VIII’s Palace) at Amalienborg (1794–1798), recently occupied home of King Christian VII of Denmark’s half-brother Frederik His protégé Bertel Thorvaldsen headed the sculptural efforts

He also planned for rebuilding the Christiansborg Palace, but he could not get the assignment

At the start of the 19th century, his interest in painting was restored when he painted four scenes from Terence’s comedy Andria This coincided with his second marriage in 1803 to Juliane Marie Ottesen, which was a very happy situation for the aging Abilgaard He had two sons and a daughter from the marriage He bought a lovely little place in the country for the family, Spurveskjul (Sparrow Hideaway)

In 1804 he received a commission for a series of painting for the throne room in the new palace, but disagreements between the artist and the crown prince put a halt to this project He continued, however, to provide the court with designs for furniture and room decorations

He was once again selected to serve as the Academy’s director from 1801 until his death in 1809, at Frederiksdal Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard is buried in Copenhagen’s Assistens Cemetery