Nicolai Abildgaard
Catullus and Lesbia, who in his arms seeking solace for her spurvs death, 1809
Oil on canvas, 47 x 37,5 cm.
Inventory number: 0194NMK
Acquired with funding from the wills of Director Per Vilhelm & Mygge Kolbing-Nielsen with grant from Danish Supreme Court Lawyer C.L. David’s Grant for Family and Friends and Lizzie and Ejler Ruge’s Art Foundation, 2003


This painting belongs to the last series with love as its theme, which Abildgaard painted before his death that same year. It is part of a suite consisting of four paintings depicting ancient love poets. Here, it is the Roman poet Catullus. Among his numerous love poems, the most famous are addressed to a distinguished, married woman, whose real name was Clodia. In his poems, he calls her Lesbia, and she is described as a beautiful and promiscuous woman, who cynically lets her love be overcome by jealousy. Catullus describes himself as subjugated and entranced, tormented by love’s anguish and unable to defend himself against the pain Lesbia inflicts on him. The scene in the small painting depicts Lesbia’s despair at the death of her sparrow. The mood is melodramatic and not without a spark of humour.


Nicolai Abildgaard (1743–1809)
Abildgaard belongs to the generation before the Golden Age painters. He was among the Danish artists who carried out Grand Tours abroad, particularly to Italy. During his years of travel, the time in Rome was critical. Here, Abildgaard studied antique art and great Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Raphael and Annibale Caracci. In Rome, he also met the Swiss-British painter Johan Heinrich Füssli, whose demonic pictorial universe made a great impression on him. Abildgaard was a learned man with a broad interest in history, mythology and art theory alike, and the inspiration for his subjects was primarily found in the literary world. His masterpiece consisted of ten large paintings for the great hall at Christiansborg, of which seven were lost in the fire of 1794.

Translator: Jennifer Russell

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