Theseus Slaying the Centaur Bianor
The ancient Greeks placed a high value on human abilities and accomplishments. Physical strength, intelligence, and courage were attributes of their mythological heroes, such as Theseus, who is portrayed in this bronze sculpture.
The French artist who made this 19th-century sculpture combined enthusiasm for ancient Greek art with an interest in new artistic trends. Satisfying his own curiosity and exercising great skill, he created this powerful sculpture.
KEY IDEA ONE
A Mythical Hero
Theseus was the son of Aegeus (EE-GEE-us), the king of Athens, and Aethra, daughter of the king of Troezen. At age sixteen, Theseus left his mother’s home and set out for Athens, to see his father. This was the beginning of a series of adventures that continued throughout his life.
Theseus’ battle with the centaur Bianor is portrayed in this sculpture by the French artist Antoine-Louis Barye (AN-twon LOO-ee bar-EE). The battle came about because of Theseus’ great friendship with Pirithous (pi-RITH-oh-us) of Thessaly, king of the Lapiths. Pirithous invited Theseus to his wedding; he also invited his neighbors, the Centaurs (creatures with the body of a horse and the chest and head of a man). The Centaurs were an unruly bunch who drank too much wine and began making trouble. When they tried to kidnap the bride, Theseus quickly stepped in, fighting them off and saving her.
The story of the Lapiths and the Centaurs was popular in Greek art as a way to picture the victory of the civilized Greeks (represented by the Lapiths) over the barbarous Persians (represented by the Centaurs) in a battle that took place in 480 B.C.
KEY IDEA TWO
Greek Mythology Inspires European Art
The discovery of the ruined Roman cities of Herculaneum (her-cue-LANE-ee-um) and Pompeii (pom-PAY) in the 1700s caused a surge of interest in Greek and Roman mythology and classical art. This fascination with antiquity resulted in a new art style, called Neoclassicism (meaning “new classicism”). Artists working in the Neoclassical style used stories from Greek and Roman mythology as well as the ideal forms and figures of ancient art.
By the mid-1800s, when Antoine-Louis Barye created Theseus Slaying the Centaur Bianor, the theatrical and emotional style known as Romanticism had become popular. The excitement of a story’s turning point appealed to Romantic artists.
Barye’s large bronze sculpture is partly Neoclassical and partly Romantic. The mythological subject and the portrayal of Theseus as an ideal human being-powerful, beautiful, and calm in the face of danger-are Neoclassical. The choice of a dramatic moment–Theseus about to strike the struggling Centaur–is typical of Romanticism.
KEY IDEA THREE
Barye’s interest in animals and his desire to sculpt their likenesses made him a frequent visitor to menageries (zoos), especially in Paris. He sketched live animals in motion and studied the bodies of animals after they died.
Barye’s skill at modeling animals is obvious in the Centaur struggling at the hands of Theseus. Its horse body is muscular and flexed in action as the Centaur twists and writhes to free itself. We can sense the violent movement because Barye has shown every detail with such care that the mythical being seems real.
Animals in action were Barye’s most common subject and the one for which he is best known. Barye was the first artist to make animal sculpture a major art form by portraying animals with the same dignity and naturalism used in picturing humans. In Theseus Slaying the Centaur Bianor, the hero’s human body and the Centaur’s horse body were both sculpted with the same expert skill and craftsmanship.
Use the search feature on Mia’s website to discover artworks based on Greek mythology. Enter the words “Greek mythology” or search by a story or character. You can also visit Mia’s online resource “World Myths and Legends in Art” to learn about the mythologies, stories, and legends of cultures around the world.
A Little Inspiration
Ter Brugghen was an admirer of the great Italian artist Caravaggio. Look at Caravaggio’s painting The Cardsharps from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. How is this work of art similar to The Gamblers? What differences do you see? Write a short essay comparing and contrasting the two paintings.
Mapping It Out
Take a geographic look at Theseus Slaying the Centaur Bianor. Begin by finding a map that shows Greece, where myths such as the story of Theseus were told. A new interest in ancient Greece took hold in Europe after the discovery of the ruined cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in Italy. See if you can find those ancient cities on a map. The French artist Antoine-Louis Barye lived and worked in Paris. Now his Theseus Slaying the Centaur Bianor is in Minneapolis. On a map of Minneapolis, locate the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Use a museum map to find Barye’s sculpture in the museum!
Stories from Around the World
Use Mia’s online resource “World Myths and Legends in Art” to learn about the mythologies, stories, and legends of cultures around the world.
Illustrating a Myth
Read a story from Greek mythology and create a drawing or sculpture to illustrate it. Who are the story’s main characters? Are they heroes, gods, or mortals? What values or traits do they have? Imagine how these characters would look. What events happen in the story? What is the moment of highest drama? Select a scene for your illustration.