Johan Frederik Clemens After Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard


Johan Frederik Clemens After Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard


This exquisite late 18th-century copperplate engraving by Johan Frederik Clemens (1749-1831) depicts the Greek philosopher Socrates. It’s after an oil painting by Danish painter, Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (1743–1809).

Here we see the eminent sage deep in introspective contemplation. His burly head resting upon a muscular left hand. Beyond him, grappling for superiority, two shadowy spirits with contrasting agendas.

Socrates described having a sixth sense, which he dubbed the daimonion. It arrived in the form of an inner voice or through environmental events and often warned him against taking certain actions. Today, we might refer to this as our conscience.

In this instance, there’s conflict and struggle. The animated figure on the right is on the cusp of offering detrimental advice before being silenced by the firm hand of the other. As such, in these moments of calm reflection, the philosopher arrives at a positive decision.

Johan Frederik Clemens’ rendering of Abildgaard’s work is scintillating and extraordinary. He’s produced an image with rich chiaroscuro and remarkable finesse - with little more than fine lines and cross hatching. To achieve this level of proficiency requires dedication and precocious talent.

By the age of 16, Clemens had already won medals at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Later becoming a member. He produced a series of engravings after works by his friend Abildgaard and this is a very good example. It’s also referred to as ‘Socrates In Prison’.

Signed/dated in plate and held within later a gilt frame with its original 18th-century glass.

Medium: Copperplate engraving
Overall size: 23½” x 20” / 60cm x 51cm
Year of creation: 1786
Labels & Inscriptions: N. Abildgaard pinx. / JF Clemens sculp. / SOCRATES V. Plato in Theag / a Mr. CHARLES BONNET of Geneva. / in Copenhagen at the author 1786.
Provenance: Private collection, Denmark.
Condition: Artwork presents well. Slight crease. Frame with some light wear.
Artist’s auction maximum: £2,996

Johan Frederik Clemens

Johan Frederik Clemens

Johan Frederik Clemens (1749-1831) was a Pomeranian-Danish master of etchings and engravings. He trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where he later became a member. He’s represented at the British Museum, Harvard Art Museums, National Gallery of Art in Washington, National Museum in Oslo, National Museum in Stockholm, Royal Collection Trust, and The Met Museum.

Learn more about Johan Frederik Clemens in our directory.

Conservation & History

We care profoundly about our role as custodians and every piece in the collection has been assessed by our conservator. When required, we undertake professional restoration carefully using reversible techniques and adopt a light touch to retain the aged charm of each work. We also restore frames rather than replace them as many are original and selected by the artists themselves.

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