shepherd boy, 1825

by Salomon Ahron Jacobson (1755-1830)
After a sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)

Signed and dated ‘IACOBSON Æ LXX AN’

(Jacobson Aged 70 Years)

Chalcedony intaglio of a young shepherd boy, nude, in classical style. Seated on a rock draped with a sheepskin, with a hound at his side. His right leg is stretched out straight, whilst his left is bent at the knee and held at the shin by his left hand. In his right hand is a staff. Signature ‘IACOBSON Æ LXX AN’ (Jacobson Aged 70 Years). This is a reproduction after a work by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, highly popular and much copied in the nineteenth century.

The inscription refers to Salomon Ahron Jacobson (1755-1830), engraver to the Danish Court who came from a family of engravers who migrated to Copenhagen from Hamburg in the late 17th century. He is buried in the Jewish Northern Cemetery in Copenhagen alongside his father, Ahron Jacobson, and his brother, David Ahron Jacobson, and was from 1776 court engraver to Christian VII of Denmark. Dalton describes the father as “A. Jacobson of Hamburg, … worked in Copenhagen.”, suggesting the family at some point emigrated from Germany to Denmark. The gem is dated by its inscription to Jacobson’s 70th year of life, 1825, just five years before he died.

Extant amongst Jacobson’s other engraved works is a finger ring in the British Museum depicting a sleeping Endymion, which was based on a Greco-Roman statue held in the National Museum of Stockholm. It is significant for two factors. First, that both this and our gem are copies of sculptures, not an unusual practice amongst gem carving but clearly a preferred method for Jacobson. Secondly, that both the British Museum gem and our gem depict idealised, young, classical male nudes. This was again hardly an unusual practice in the nineteenth century. The celebrated writer Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose seminal History of Ancient Art set the tenets of neoclassical taste, singled out young male beauty as the ideal form of beauty, saying of Greek art that its “supreme beauty is rather male than female.”

The current gem reproduces Thorvaldsen’s composition of a Shepherd Boy, the plaster casts of which are dated 1817 and the marbles from 1823-26, supporting the dating of the gem to 1825. Numerous large-scale marble versions of Thorvaldsen’s sculpture survive, including examples in the Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor, the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, the Manchester Art Gallery, and in the Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen. The Thorvaldsen Museum also holds a large-scale and a small-scale plaster version of the composition.

In 1819 Thorvaldsen visited Copenhagen from Rome, and it is possible that the version of the Shepherd Boy still in Copenhagen was carved during that period, and that Jacobson would have seen either that, or the subsequent drawings and etchings based on it. The popularity of Thorvaldsen’s composition is attested not only by the number of extant examples by Thorvaldsen himself, suggesting a ready market for large-scale marble versions, but also by the various engravings and drawings after the work held in the collection of the Thorvaldsen museum by contemporaries of Thorvaldsen, including Iganizio Podio, Samuel Amsler and Domenicino Marchetti. 

The work can also be seen in a portrait of Thorvaldsen by his friend, the German painter Carl Adolf Senff (1785-1863), in which a small-scale Shepherd Boy rests on a plinth beside the sculptor.

Thorvaldsen’s composition of a young shepherd is not generally understood to be based on any exact literary source, marking it as unusual amongst his oeuvre. It is rather an embodiment of a classical ideal, the bucolic genre figure of a shepherd. The young man’s body is perfectly proportionate, his defined abdomen and springy curls recall a young Apollo type, for example Praxiteles’ Apollo Sauroctonos, or the Apollo Belvedere, and his pose recalls the Spinario, all of which Thorvaldsen, who spent a large part of his life in Rome, would have known well. Thorvaldsen’s sculpture also recalls John Gibson’s Sleeping Shepherd Boy, which was his first life-size model as a pupil of Canova, the plaster model of which is dated 1818. Where Thorvaldsen goes beyond Gibson and the antique is in the extraordinary naturalism of the shepherd’s pose, clearly based on life rather than classical convention.

The Thorvaldsen work has been occasionally identified as Endymion, the shepherd who was loved by the goddess Selene. The Harvard Art Museum has, amongst a collection of 70 Paoletti impronte of engraved gems, a plaster cast of a copy of the Thorvaldsen which is entitled ‘Endymion as a Shepherd, with his Dog, after Thorwaldsen’ (6.7 x 5.4 x 1 cms, Object Number 1910.12.2.17). The cast is indistinct, however, it would appear that it is not a cast of the current intaglio, suggesting it is either another version, or another engraver altogether who also copied the Thorvaldsen.

In the Dallas Museum of Art is a porcelain sculpture after Thorvaldsen, executed by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufacture Ltd. c. 1850-1900, which is entitled ‘Endymion, after Bertil Thorvaldsen’. Leonard Forrer in his Biographical Dictionary of Medallists seems to have mistakenly conflated the British Museum gem and this gem, stating: “the British Museum owns an Intaglio of Endymion by him (Cat. No. 764). The gem is a copy of a statue by Thorvaldsen at Copenhagen.”

Whilst the composition of Jacobson’s intaglio is certainly based on Thorvaldsen’s design, he further exaggerates the body’s angular lines, with the torso becoming almost distended, recalling archaic kouroi. The image is full of juxtaposing textures, the smoothness of the legs contrasting with the roughness of the stone and the lambskin draped on it, and with the hound’s shaggy fur. These, along with the naturalism of the pose, the way his toe brushes the hound’s fur and his hands grip both his leg and staff, and the highlighting of the lines of the youth’s body, evoke a strong sensuality that would have appealed to the nineteenth century neoclassical collector.

Material

chalcedony intaglio set in a gold frame

Dimensions

33 x 24 x 3 mm

Date and Origin

1825, Copenhagen

Exhibited

Salonen, Charl.borg 1788; Charl. Forår 1823-26, 1828.

Literature 

On Jacobson: Vilh. Bergsøe: Da. Medailler og Jetons, 1893; J. Wilcke: Specie-, Kurant- og Rigsbankdaler, 1929; G. Galster: Medailler og Jetons, 1936; A. Bæckström i: Göteborgs musei årstryck, 1946, 128; A. Ernst i: Nord. numism. Unions Medl.bl., okt. 1948; H. Hede: Danm. og Norges Mønter, 1978

Condition

Very fine