While very young he learnt to assist his father; at the age of eleven he entered the Copenhagen school of art, and soon began to show his exceptional talents. In 1792 he won the highest prize, the travelling studentship, and in 1796 he started for Italy in a Danish man-of-war.
On March 8, 1797 he arrived in Rome, where Canova was at the height of his popularity. Thorwaldsen's first success was the model for a statue of Jason, which was highly praised by Canova, and he received the commission to execute it in marble from Thomas Hope, a wealthy English art-patron. From that time Thorwaldsen's success was assured, and he did not leave Italy for twenty-three years.
In 1819 he returned to Denmark, where he was commissioned to make the colossal series of statues of Christ and the twelve apostles which are now in the Fruenkirche in Copenhagen. These were executed after his return to Rome, and were not completed till 1838, when Thorwaldsen again returned to Denmark. He died suddenly in the Copenhagen theatre on the 24th of March 1844 and bequeathed a great part of his fortune for the building and endowment of a museum in Copenhagen, and also left to fill it all his collection of works of art and the models for all his sculptures very large collection, exhibited to the greatest possible advantage. Thorwaldsen is buried in the courtyard of this museum, under a bed of roses, by his own special wish.
On the whole Thorwaldsen was the most successful of all the imitators of classical sculpture, and many of his statues of pagan deities are modelled with much of the antique feeling for breadth and purity of design. His attempts at Christian sculpture, such as the tomb of Pius VII in St Peter's and the "Christ and Apostles" at Copenhagen, are less successful, and were not in accordance with the sculptor's real sympathies, which were purely classic.
Thorwaldsen worked sometimes with feverish eagerness; at other times he was idle for many months together. A great number of his best works exist in private collections in England. His not very successful statue of Lord Byron, after being refused a place in Westminster Abbey, was finally deposited in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The most widely popular among Thorwaldsen's works have been some of his bas-reliefs, such as the "Night" and the "Morning," which he is said to have modelled in one day.
See Eugène Plon, Thorwaldsen, sa vie, etc. (Paris, 1880); Andersen, B. Thorwaldsen (Berlin, 1845); Killerup, Thorwaldsen's Arbeiten, etc. (Copenhagen, 1852); Thiele, Thorwaldsen's Leben (Leipzig, 1852-1856); CA Rosenberg, Thorwaldsen ... mit 146 Abbildungen (1896; "Kunstlermonographien," No. 16); S Trier, Thorvaldsen (1903); A Wilde, Erindringer om Jerichau og Thorvaldsen (1884).