Nicolai Abildgaard, Richard III before the Battle of Bosworth, 1780-89
15.6 x 24 in.
Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809) was a Danish Neoclassical painter. He was a history painter, sculptor, and architect, as well as a professor at the New Royal Danish Academy of Art, where he taught mythology, painting, and anatomy. Born in Copenhagen, Abildgaard attended the academy himself and had an apprenticeship there, before moving to Rome to continue his studies. Abildgaard was quite successful as an academic painter, and was appointed royal history painter around 1780. He was commissioned to do large-scale works that glorified the history of Denmark, and that included allegories to flatter the government. Despite this outward support, Abildgaard was a critic of both the government and state church. He favored extensive political reforms, such as the emancipation of farmers. Eventually, his dissent was no longer tolerated, and, after the exhibition of Jupiter Weighs the Fate of Mankind in 1794, he was politically isolated and prohibited from public debate. This event, and a devastating fire at Christianborg Palace that destroyed many of his works, proved detrimental to his career. However, both his career and personal life were revitalized in the final years of his life, with a series of new commissions and a second marriage that resulted in three children. Throughout his career, Abildgaard often painted Classical myths, as well as British legend and literature. The painting I have featured is based on Shakespeare's RIchard III. It depicts the king the night before the Battle of Bosworth field, which result is his deposition and death, as well as the end of the War of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty. Abildgaard had preciously painted Richard III in quite a heroic manner, with little or not trace of the deformities that marked him. In this piece, the figure looks the same, with a beautiful face and Classical heroic body, but the pose alters the impression significantly. By showing RIchard splayed on the bed like that, his body twisted around, Abildgaard does suggest the characteristic hump. The entire painting is about his impending death; his repose could easily be the sleep of death, the spirits (presumably meant to be those of everyone he killed to gain the throne) gesture menacingly and beckon him the next world, and finally the sword points into his wrist as though poised to kill him on the spot. This is a powerful painting that in many ways recalls depictions of Roman heroes. The tragic deaths of so many people are balanced with the demise of the tyrant. With his sculptural forms and vivid colors, Abildgaard renders the scene quite effectively and compellingly.