Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809), The Wounded Philoctetes, 1775
From 1772 Abildgaard spent five years in Rome thanks to a scholarship granted by the Royal Danish
Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. It was while in Rome that he created this depiction of the legendary hero Philoctetes, whose screams of pain caused by a festering snakebite made his comrades-in-arms abandon him on a Greek island during the Trojan war.
The dominant and deeply rooted movement within figure painting at this time was neoclassicism with its emphasis on self-command and calm. Abildgaard challenges this pattern with his depiction of a body convulsively curved around an axis of pain; a body that feels like it is forcefully restrained within the picture field with its tense musculature and twisted limbs.
Avantgarde, pathos and Weltschmerz
The 1770s brought with them an increased emphasis on grand passions among the Northern European ”avant-garde”, and this new outlook also left its mark on Abildgaard’s circles in Rome. The interest in pathos and Weltschmerz is clearly evident in his works from this era.
In this case he used a principal work of classical sculpture as the basis for his rendition of Philoctetes’ tormented state: The Torso Belvedere in the Vatican museum served as the model for the plastic and mannered rendition of the hero’s upper body. With this move, Abildgaard’s stylistic innovation was imbued with features of a work canonised by neoclassicism – without, however, reducing the tensions in the painting.
On the one hand ... And on the other hand
One the one hand:
"He sticks his bottom right out at us. He screams. He is all squished up by the frame. The work is redolent with homoerotic and sadomasochist undertones. This is not history painting as we are used to see it, not a classic depiction of a scene from Antiquity. It is certainly very far removed from Bertel Thorvaldsen. It is not pleasant to look at, but perhaps it is a little arousing? What is it Abildgaard wishes to rouse us to do? Does he want us to change our view of history as a happy wellspring of our time? Abildgaard has ambitions on an international scale; he paints in direct contravention of the traditions revered by his age. He is intimidating and critically intellectual. Are you allowed to do that as a Danish artist? Not until the late nineteen-eighties was The wounded philoctetes brought out of storage at the Gallery again. Up to that point, a hole bunch of negative sentiments had barred its way back into the light."
Henrik Holm, Research Curator
On the other hand:
Martin Hammerich, a headmaster, commissioned Skovgaard’s painting for his flat in the Christianshavn area of Copenhagen. The painting was intended to hang opposite a copy of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna painted by Jørgen Roed. It might seem as if a Renaissance altarpiece and a landscape painting from the Golden Age of Danish art are entirely incompatible entities. Yet in a certain sense Skovgaard’s painting can be viewed as a companion to Raphael’s religious vision. In Skovgaard’s work, the beech forest is a place of harmony, a place of undisturbed balance between man and nature. The trees even form a space reminiscent of the inside of a church, thereby adding a religious dimension to the motif. In other words, Skovgaard has painted a 19th century vision of an earthly paradise for the common man.
Kasper Monrad, Senior Research Curator
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Nicolai Abildgaard, The Wounded Philoctetes, 1775.
More views of the work – see the films
Our conservator Troels Filtenborg tells about Nicolai Abildgaard's painting: The wounded Philoctetes.
Camera and editing: Martin Pedersen
Contributory: Troels Filtenborg
Our senior researcher Kasper Monrad tells about Nicolai Abildgaard's painting: The wounded Philoctetes.
Camera and edit: Martin Pedersen
Contributory: Kasper Monrad