More than 35 years were to pass from the time when Willumsen first had the idea of executing a big relief to its unveiling ceremony at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen in 1928. Initially he thought that he would be able to complete it within a period of 18 months to two years.
Willumsen started work on the relief in 1893 when he was almost 30 years of age. He did not work uninterruptedly on the project, but was much occupied by it at certain points of his career. He worked on it in Paris during the last part of 1893 and the whole of 1894 and again from 1896 to 1899 in Copenhagen.
In the 1920s when he had received an official commission for the relief, Willumsen worked on its form and its execution in marble. A large plaster wall had already been erected in his house in Strandagervej in the period before World War 1. Willumsen continued to change the form of the relief, and important developments took place, with respect both to the whole and to the individual figures. He retained the same basic structure with the two main figures.
The idea for the relief had come to Willumsen on his first trip to the USA, when he visited The World Fair in Chicago. He had in mind a wall in a bar in Chicago, a town that was undergoing a dynamic development. The wall was to be executed in ceramics inlaid with other materials such as wood, bronze, marble and mother-of-pearl. The intention was to give pleasure to the customers and inspire them to continue the development of their own capabilities.
When Willumsen turned 60 in September 1923, the Danish State commissioned him to execute The Great Relief.
It was to be done in marble and installed at The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Later when The J.F. Willumsen Museum was built, the relief was moved to Frederikssund. The museum was designed to house the relief, and it got the side lighting that Willumsen thought so important for the viewer’s experience of the work.
The relief was executed in variously coloured marble, stone and gilt bronze. The marble had been cut at Lazzarini’s workshop in Carrara, Italy. Willumsen watched the work and had himself chosen the different kinds of marble. The colours were by no means unimportant. When the figure of the man in women’s clothes was cut with a skin colour that had too much character, it had to be redone with a paler colour.
In a text from 1928 Willumsen has explained the content of the relief:
"The Great Relief, a piece of music, is executed in marble, other variously coloured stone and gilt bronze and contains a collocation of types symbolising Willumsen’s view of existence and human life.
Two giants have been placed in the middle of the big surface and divide the relief into two halves, a positive and a negative side. This corresponds to a somewhat similar idea that Willumsen has expressed in the two reliefs that he has placed on the frame of his Jotunheim picture.
One of the giants, the one on the left, seems to represent cold "Reflection" or, perhaps rather, cold "Calculation". On his outstretched arm, top left, stand two large figures, a man in women’s clothes called "Weakness", tyrannised by a woman, an armour-clad fury, called "War". Beneath these two repulsive figures the wretched of human society, "the suffering", plunge into the abyss.
The other giant, the one on the right who holds the first giant’s hand, has mild features, he should probably be seen as "Immediacy" or "Instinct", his eyes are closed. On his outstretched left arm stand two figures, a man"The Worker", the symbol of Will and Action and "A Woman", who admiringly and lovingly presses The Worker’s left hand to her throbbing heart.
Around these six big symbols or types there is a crowd of smaller figures. They follow some undulating lines that begin in the low relief in the background, pass under "Reflection"’s right arm and then in front of the two giants. The figures are human beings who on their way go through various spiritual states, such as carefree rest, anxiety, suffering, to end in the highest happiness, expressed in the "Young Lovers", the gilt bronze couple, placed in front of "The Worker" and "The Woman".