Thorvaldsen’s Museum: The First Temple of Art


© Mads Lund

Denmark’s first art museum was built as a temple for the great Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.

The great Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) became internationally famous during his many years in Rome. With a few interruptions, he lived from 1797 to 1838 in the Italian capital. Nevertheless, in his later years, he was persuaded to return to Copenhagen, where he received a professorship at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In Denmark, he donated all his works and a large art collection to a new museum funded by public donations, the city of Copenhagen, and Thorvaldsen’s own fortune.

Reused Walls

The grounds behind Christiansborg Palace Chapel, where the four-winged royal carriage yard was located, were donated by Frederick VI to the museum. Here, architect M.G. Bindesbøll constructed Denmark’s first art museum from 1839 to 1848. He extensively reused the existing walls from the carriage yard and added a large entrance hall with five high, sloping portals that form the main facade of the museum.

Above it, The Goddess of Victory charges forward with her quadriga. This is a bronze sculpture made by H.W. Bissen based on Thorvaldsen’s design. The main facade’s sloping portals refer to the classical temple entrance and are repeated on the facades all around. This is also true for the rectangular inner courtyard, where the artist’s grave was placed.

Rich Decoration

The museum stands out due to the long frieze on the facade executed by painter Jørgen V. Sonne. On the north side facing Slotsholmen’s canal, the frieze depicts Thorvaldsen’s return to Copenhagen in 1838. Other striking elements include the use of bright colors both inside and outside and the rich decoration. The floors are laid in various mosaic and terrazzo patterns. The wall colors vary from room to room, creating a big contrast to the white sculptures. The ceilings are decorated in Pompeian style.

Inspiration from Southern Europe

With this insistent use of narrative as a means of expression, the museum marks the transition in Danish architecture to historicism. As a young man, Bindesbøll had been on several study trips to Southern Europe, where he was inspired by the excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum. These had revealed that the Greeks painted their sculptures and temples in strong colors, an idea Bindesbøll brought from antiquity to Copenhagen.

Thorvaldsen Never Saw His Museum

The museum’s bright colored surfaces naturally met with resistance in neoclassical Copenhagen. Thorvaldsen himself did not live to see the completed museum, as he died four years before its inauguration.

The building has been restored several times. From 1921 to 1942 by architect Kaare Klint, who also designed a lot of new furnishings and furniture. The courtyard frieze was renewed from 1934 to 1940, and Sonne’s frieze from 1952 to 1959 by painter and ceramicist Axel Salto.

Near Thorvaldsen’s Museum

Thorvaldsen’s Museum is in the middle of The Copenhagen Cultural District. From here, you can easily visit some of the city’s most important cultural institutions. The closest neighbor is Christiansborg Palace, which, in addition to the main building, features a chapel, riding grounds, and a theater. If you’re looking for more art, there are two prominent places nearby. Just across the canal, you’ll find Gammel Strand, and looking over the rooftops, you’ll quickly spot the impressive verdigris church tower of Nikolaj Kunsthal.


This translation was performed by an AI-based service and subsequently reviewed by an editor. For any clarifications, refer to the original Danish version. 


Copenhagen, Inner City


Michael Gottlieb Bindesbøll