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Friends of the Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen

Foto: Jens Lindhe

Jan Zahle:  The Royal Cast Collection, Julius Lange, and Polycleitus' Doryphoros     [1990][i]


 Towards the end of the 19th Century Denmark witnessed an extraordinary increase of interest in ancient sculpture. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek was created by Carl Jacobsen in 1888 and in 1895 The Royal Cast Collection was founded on the initiative of Jacobsen and especially the art historian Julius Lange, who became its first director.

The cast collection is a department of The State Museum of Fine Arts. Since 1984 it is housed apart from the museum's main building, in a warehouse from 1781 situated on the harbour front near the Amalienborg palace in Copenhagen. Three floors of together 3000 m2 are at the disposal of the collection. It is currently being restored and prepared for exhibition. With its about 2200 pieces of sculpture – from the Old Kingdom of Egypt c. 2500 BC and to the Renaissance c. 1600 AD – the collection ranks among the biggest in the world and is among the very few that covers both ancient and later periods.

The collection, moreover, has a special interest because Julius Lange (1838-1896)[ii] created it not only for study and the gratification and education of the middle class, but according to his scientific ideas, which deeply influenced by Ancient Greek works on ethics. His scholarly work is interwoven with his whole view of life and his thoughts about man's conditions on earth. His ideas and ideals, his writings and also the cast collection is a remarkable example of the vitality of the Classical Tradition with explicit implications for the right way of living of contemporary man.

The main aim of the present paper is to illuminate Lange's thinking, as far as possible through quotations from his work. My reason for doing this is the impressive coherence of his humanistic view of life. The European humanistic ideals are currently – as it should be – subject to examination and criticism. Julius Lange is an imposing and towering representative of the humanism of his time and to a certain degree a qualified participant even in the contemporary discussion.



The 'life-project' of Julius Lange is aptly described in the first volume of his work The Representation of the Human Form in the visual Arts from 1892. A second volume was published posthumously, in 1898, and in the following year several chapters and passages from further planned volumes appeared.

The variety of...human ... the...essential differences in Man's understanding of himself throughout the different epochs of history. They transmit a unique and very important aspect of the history of Man's awareness of himself, and they illustrate that which Man has known at all times, has meant and has wished to accomplish with respect to his own being. (1892: 6).[iii]

In studying the artistic representation of Man we peruse it as an expression of the common interest of Man in the human being. Therefore we write about the history of this concern. (1892: 10)

Obviously he studied what we now call 'the history of mentality'. His subtle approach is further illustrated by his remark:

In a work of art we do not become directly familiar with either the subject matter or with the artist. We only look at that which the artist derived from his subject. (1876: 118-119).

Lange not only defined his subject and aims but also his approach: an ethic rather than aesthetic view on artistic value. He focussed on the meaning; this could, of course, be expressed in varying degrees of artistic mastery, and the sincerity of the artist is essential.

The worth of a given work is the importance it had for the person who produced it. In turn the importance of the subject is transmitted to us by means of his representation. (1876: 65).

Lange's admirable didactic concern with elucidating his fundamental ideas appears from the fact that the first 44 pages of his study from 1892 are termed: Propaedeutic chapters. Then he proceeds with The introductory Arts. It comprises what we call primitive art, and Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Archaic Greek art. It is characterized by frontality, stiffness, isolation, timelessness, and repetition of the figures, when depicted in a group. His definition of the "law of frontality" as a universal, initial phase of artistic development won wide and lasting recognition.

In Lange's opinion a unique breakthrough in the world history of culture happened in Greece in the 6th-5th Cent. BC, – a breakthrough that designates the superiority of European art and thinking (1892: 45, 170). His 'Europe-centrism' and the often stated conviction of Europe's mastery over the rest of the world corresponds e.g. to the contemporary display of ethnographica in museums. The primitive societies were everywhere considered as preludes to European culture, the highest development in the evolution of culture.

Of course he is aware of the debt of Greece to the Orient, but in accordance also with his thinking of art as an expression of society, of a functional whole, he does not consider it very important:

With respect to the art of...the Greeks... one might reasonably say that it was a matter of some indifference whether the pictorial arts had come to them from Australian aboriginals, the Chinese or the Phoenicians. In any case they would recreate them to suit their own image. In their civic life and their understanding of Man was in fact contained the origin of their pictorial art. (1892: 156).

To Lange the possible derivation of the single elements is of minor interest (a matter mainly of concern to the scholarly "woodlice"). What really matters is the ingenious Greek use, integration, and transformation of the 'building units'.

If ever there was a time in history when one could truly hear the grass grow and feel how man developed into Man, it would be the fifth century in Greece, especially in Athens. …All at once or in quick succession a series of intellectual activities emerged, which all made Man their object: dramatic poetry and scenic art, the first writing of true history, the first philosophical considerations of human life, and a new pictorial art that allowed space for the free movements of life. Thus the most powerful advance in Man's common self-awareness that history has ever witnessed took place. Man was discovered. (1898: 29).

                      The first development in the Greek breakthrough was the representation (in the Archaic period) of the nude, that marks both a focus on and an appreciation of the human species:

By means of the naked body a beneficent and trusting relationship with the nature of Man was declared. But this was not understood in naturalistic terms, rather ethically and politically. It was not a nature that grew wild or was errant, but on the contrary a nature that was civilized through and through. This became the subject of art. (1892: 170-171).

The second development was the break up of the frontality in the 5th Century BC:

Statues begin to bend, twist and turn to the left and to the right at the neck and below the waist... In the course of a very brief period statue, relief, and painting become something very different from what they had been for thousands of years. (1892: 208).

From now on it became the rule of art that every statue, in fact every single figure, was to lead its own life; in a manner of speaking it was to express its own moment. (1892: 225).

This means: a concession to truth, to the experience of reality. (1892: 228).


On p. 90-117 in his book of 1898 Lange discusses the art of Polycleitus and his school. He gives an introduction to his art, discusses the evidence of Ancient written sources several hundred years younger, and the problem of having to work with Roman copies rather than with the Greek originals. Both the Diadoumenos and the Doryphorus are described and critically evaluated.

We shall focus on his appreciation of the Doryphorus as an artistic expression of the best of Greek thought:

The Doryphorus is accepted as the Kanon (1898: 100f.) According to Pliny, NH 24.55 the motif uno crure insistere was strictly Polycleitus' invention. Proportion of the body, the commensurability of the parts was his concern. The notion of proportion is tied up with kalo k'agathia, beauty and fitness.

The essence of Greek thought, the fear of exaggeration, the notion which the Romans trivialized as aurea mediocritas is embodied in both Polycleitus' art and Aristotle's philosophy:

...that this perfection was dependent upon a certain moderation in the construction of the body and depended more on the mutual relationship of the several parts than on any extreme development of any particular part... Aristotle (Eth. Nicom. II.5) states, as if it was a commonplace with which one might characterize a flawless work of art, that "neither was there something to detract from it nor anything to add" and that "too much or too little might spoil the subject. (1898: 102-103).

Polycleitus had been the Aristotle of plasticity and Aristotle became the Polycleitus of ethics – however different they were with respect to method: the artist shows how it ought to be without using words or with as few words as possible; the philosopher justifies and expands. But in principle Aristotle did no more than penetrate to the very centre of the Greek view of life (1898: 103).

At this point Lange has reached the very core of his humanistic view of life. Quite extraordinarily he neglects all written and unwritten laws of scholarly behaviour. His notion of the correct and the best as the centre between extremes and perversions results in the following passionate intervention in the current intellectual debate:

The fact that the representation of Man in antiquity builds on this point of view and altogether is characterized by it would hardly sway the hearts of modern times. Since antiquity art has in general terms swung between extremes, especially between the too slender and ascetic and the far too powerful and abundant: it has seldom found the via media of antiquity, except when it has used antiquity as its straightforward model. But the doctrine of the via media is not valued highly, neither with those who adopt a Christian-Romantic nor with a purely modern attitude to life. It matters not what one chooses to call oneself, for nowadays there is a demand for speed which compels the sequence to one of the extremes, and one looks disapprovingly or contemptuously on that which composedly or even in lukewarm fashion remains standing in the centre – (le juste milieu) or "the noble mediocrity". Perhaps mankind owes more to the doctrine of the via media than one is inclined to be grateful for, for even though it is not recognized it has not, in fact, been killed altogether, and if anybody with his life and work wishes to cast it aside, then he is hoist by his own petard even as he stumbles over his own feet. But it has also been misinterpreted. For the modernist it is merely being half-way, and from the Christian point of view it is an Neither/Nor, an escape from exaggeration of any kind. Indeed, if this were true, one might rightly ask how anybody could become passionate about an artistic ideal or a behaviour the characteristics of which were only something negative, which it not aim at. For then the result would not become anything other than anxiety and Philistinism. But this would also be a completely erroneous understanding of the intention of the Greeks, for they did not seek the middle goal for its own sake, but because experience taught them that this constituted the greatest positive ability to survive and in union with it the greatest beauty: The via media was the path to a perdurable ideal. Nor does Aristotle fail to stress explicitly that what is good and right in any given case is something of a choice between two evils, but that with respect to worth and perfection it is not a something in between but the uttermost, the highest (Ethic.Nicom. II.6.17). (1898: 104).

This discussion of and the defence of the via media as something positive, however, is of more than historical interest. In fact, it is as topical now as a hundred years ago. The basis of Villy Sørensen's and others' endeavour to establish a new platform for politics (Oprør fra midten 1978) is exactly the notion of the middle as a power-centre.

It is understandable enough that youth is inclined to go to extremes – and to find the via media blocked by those who are going nowhere... In the extreme it is easy enough to be a radical, a right wing radical, a left wing radical, – it is more demanding to be a radical in the centre, which is the same as saying that one goes in depth rather than to extremes. (1979: 168). Quite recently, in his discussion of Hermann Broch (1988: 67-103) Sørensen again investigates the notion of the middle as a platform for action and not for the commonplace notion of mediocrity.

Would not Villy Sørensen agree with Lange when he says: When all is said and done, is it not a good thing about an ideal that it does not depart on a wild flight beyond reality but maintains its place on a firm foundation in the centre? (1898: 106)?


In two public lectures given and published in 1893 Lange had the opportunity to present and discuss his plans for the arrangement of the ground floor of the new building for The State Museum of Fine Arts. It was devoted to The Royal Cast Collection, which formed a kind of introduction to the National art on the first floor.

The great entrance hall furnished the visitor with: a first impression of the great contrasts in style with respect to the arts of the different peoples, the different nations and the different periods... It is beautiful and charged with feeling, and is an effective introduction. (1893: 20).

This was to be conveyed by animal sculptures from Egypt (lions),[iv] Assyria, India, Further India, Alhambra, Byzantium, Medieval times, later sculptures e.g. by Canova, the Etruscan Chimaera and the boar in Florence.

From here the development in the plastic arts could be followed either to the left or to the right. Both courses ended up in the same rooms with the neo-classicistic art of Canova (turning left) and Thorvaldsen (turning right).

If the visitor turned left he could follow Kunstens store Verdensudvikling (the great evolution in world art). It starts with Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian and "Old Mexican" masterpieces, e.g. the wooden 'Scheik el Beled' from the Old Egyptian kingdom. Then follows Ancient Greek and Roman art, Early Christian, Italian Medieval and Renaissance art, ending up with some Baroque and Rococo samples and the neo-classicistic period as mentioned.[v]

If the visitor turned right he would find himself in the Nordic world of mere barbarism. For in fact we Nordic people began with it, and we ought not to forget that if we wish to appreciate what we have subsequently achieved. (1893: 28).

Runic stones, idols from the old Vendic lands, Medieval sculpture from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, from the brighter and more cultured Middle Ages in Germany and France. Dutch, German and French art of the 15th and early 16th Cent., e.g. the so-called Well of Moses in Dijon, burials from St. Denis in Paris, French rococo, and finally Bertel Thorvaldsen.

The exhibition thus follows two courses that meet in the neo-classicist Thorvaldsen: the Classic and the Nordic fused in a single Danish artist. A grandiose scheme! In the present connection, however, we shall note two features. The overall evolutionstic sequence and its beginning with The introductory Arts just as in Lange's The Representation of the Human Form in the visual Arts from 1892. Moreover, most of the sculptures listed above and in note 2 also figures as illustrations in his books from 1892, 1898, 1899, and 1901. The cast collection forms the three-dimensional companion to Lange's written treatises.

Unfortunately Julius Lange died already in 1896, one year after the founding of The Royal Cast Collection and two years before it opened to the public. From 1897 to 1914 Carl Jacobsen was director of the collection. With his characteristic energy he greatly increased the collection, but – also characteristically – more according to his own ideas than Lange's. This is quite another story. Still, however, the collection is a monument of Julius Lange's creative and engaged humanism and illustrates his scholarly 'life work'. This does not mean that the collection is only a monument of his thought. The statues stand there in their own right. They are connected and related to each other and us in many ways and on many different levels. One level is the Julius Lange dimension, that is both a testimony to antique reception and humanism 100 years ago, and also – I believe – something worth to contemplate on today.




Brandes, Georg

1898                      Julius Lange. Breve fra hans Ungdom, Copenhagen.


Elling, Christian

1938                      “Lange, Julius”, Dansk Biografisk Leksikon XIII (2.ed.): 571-577. Copenhagen.


Lange, Julius

1876                      “Kunstudstillingen og Afstøbningssamlingen”, in J. Lange, Billedkunst: 534-543. Copenhagen.

1892                      Billedkunstens Fremstilling af Menneskeskikkelsen i dens ældste Periode indtil Højdepunktet af den Græske Kunst. Copenhagen. (Avec un résumé en français: Étude sur la représentation de la figure humaine dans l'art primitif jusqu'à l'art grec du Ve siècle av. J.-C.)

1893                      Om vore Skulptur- og Malerisamlinger, især deres fremtidige Indretning. Copenhagen.

1898                      Billedkunstens Fremstilling af Menneskeskikkelsen i den græske Kunsts første Storhedstid. Copenhagen. (Avec un résumé en français: Étude sur la représentation de la figure humaine dans la première grande période de l'art grec) [German translation: Darstellung des Menschen in der älteren griechischen Kunst, Strasbourg 1899]

1899                      Menneskefiguren i Kunstens Historie. Fra den græske Kunsts 2den Blomstringstid til vort Aarhundrede, Ed. P. Købke. Copenhagen. [German translation: Die menschliche Gestalt in der Geschichte der Kunst von der zweiten Blütezeit der griechischen Kunst bis zum XIX. Jahrhundert, Strasbourg 1903]

1901                      “Til Sammenligning mellem Antik og Modern Figurstil”, 1879. Udvalgte Skrifter 2: 1-9. Ed. G. Brandes & P. Købke. Copenhagen. [German translation: Ausgewählte Schriften 1-2. Strasbourg 1911-1912]


Poulsen, Vagn Häger

1944                      “Julius Lange”, Danmark 4 (9-10): 275-282. Copenhagen.


Sass, Else Kai

1979                      “Julius Lange”, Københavns Universitet 1479-1979 XI: 263-274. Copenhagen.


Sørensen Villy

1979                      Den gyldne middelvej og andre debatindlæg fra 70erne, Copenhagen.

1988                      Kunsten og demokratiet, Copenhagen.


Tandrup, Leo

1981                      “Lange, Julius, 1838-96”, Dansk Biografisk Leksikon3 VIII: 488-494. Copenhagen.





[i] Acta Hyperborea 2. The Classical Heritage in Nordic Art and Architecture, Marjatta Nielsen (red.), Museum Tusculanum Press 1990: 241-249.

[ii] See Elling 1938, Poulsen 1944, Sass 1979, and Tandrup 1981 for his biography and appraisals.

[iii] Quotations from Julius Lange translated by Hanne Carlsen.

[iv] The underlined sculptures are contained in the collection.

[v] Sculptures from the temple of Zeus in Olympia, sculptures from the Parthenon, Nike from Samothrace, the Berlin amazon, Eirene and Ploutos in Munich, Niobe and her youngest daughter, portraits of Menander, Poseidippos, Aristoteles, reliefs from the Arch of Titus in Rome, from the pulpit of Nicola Pisano in Pisa, many sculptures by Michelangelo from the Medici chapel, the Florence pieta, David, Brutus, Andrea Sansovino’s group from the Florence baptisterium, the burial monument of cardinal della Rovere in St. Maria del Popolo in Rome, Jacopo Sansovino’s Bacchus in Florence, Gaston de Foix by Agostino Busti, Jacopo della Quercia’s Ilaria del Caretto, Stefano Maderno, Bernini, Canova’s Venus.




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