CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Six Greek Myths Essential to Understanding Art History

Some of the world’s greatest fine art has been inspired by the incredible tales and characters of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. These stories gave artists heroes, villains and mystical creatures as enthralling subject matter. Since these stories were passed down through the oral tradition, art based on mythology is a powerful storytelling aid.

 
Italian Mythological Marble Plaques depicting the myths of Perseus and Andromeda and Endymion, circa 1800

Italian Mythological Marble Plaques depicting the myths of Perseus and Andromeda and Endymion, circa 1800
 

Mythology and art have long gone hand-in-hand. Of course, mythological art was predominant in the ancient classical works of Greece and Rome, but its popularity carried over into the Renaissance and beyond. For a time, mythological subjects were among the few that met with approval from the French Académie, which called them the grand genre. Even modern artists have found inspiration in these centuries-old legends, and their artistic significance continues even today. Because of its long-reaching influence, mythology has developed its own kind of vocabulary within fine art, and understanding these stories has become essential to understanding art history. Read on to learn about a few of the most important and frequently occurring mythological subjects in art.

 

Venus

L'Amour Désarmé (Love Disarmed) by Émile Munier, circa 1886

L'Amour Désarmé (Love Disarmed) by Émile Munier, circa 1886
 

Beginning with Venus, also known as Aphrodite, seems appropriate, as her position as goddess of love and beauty makes her story fertile ground for artists wishing to convey themes of incredible beauty and romance, as was often the goal in the Academic tradition. Some of these most universally recognizable artworks star this goddess (think Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and the Venus de Milo). She is also often portrayed alongside her son, Cupid, the god of desire and attraction.

While Venus so often represents love and seduction, her mythological anecdote plays a secondary role in most of the compositions she appears in. Venus offered a perfect opportunity for artists to present on canvas an exploration of the female nude in a way that was palatable to critics and audiences in centuries past. The beautiful woman in this composition by Émile Munier combines the inherent sensuality of Venus with the academic idealism that was essential to the 19th-century art world.

 

The Muses

Clio by Studio of Romanelli, early 20th century

Clio by Studio of Romanelli, early 20th century

 
One of the nine muses, Clio is depicted here with an open scroll featuring a quote by Pliny the Younger — alluding to her role as the Muse of History. Clio’s story, as well as her sisters’, is a famed tale from Greek mythology. Her mother, the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, was visited by Zeus for nine consecutive nights which resulted in the creation of the Nine Muses. Each of these Muses resembled a different part of poetic inspiration, and Clio is history.
 
Clio’s story does not end there, however. Clio was disgusted by the goddess Aphrodite’s passionate love for Adonis, a human, so Clio reprimanded the love-struck goddess of beauty. Upset by this, Aphrodite then made Clio fall in love with Pierus, the mortal King of Macedonia as punishment.
 
The story of Clio and the Muses has stimulated much art since the times of the Ancient Greeks. Individual depictions of the Muses, as well as collections of them together, are a popular subject — one with a story that is well known throughout the world.
 

Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan by workshop of Bartholomaeus Spranger, late 16th century

Leda and the Swan by workshop of Bartholomaeus Spranger, late 16th century
 

According to this myth, the beautiful maiden Leda, Queen of Sparta, was seduced by the king of the gods Zeus, who took the form of a graceful swan. He impregnates her during this encounter, resulting in the birth of Helen of Troy. It is one of the most well-known stories from classical mythology and has been a favorite subject of artists in every medium.

 

Leda encounters a divine swan in this masterfully composed work by the workshop of the great Flemish master Bartholomaeus Spranger. The artist interprets the highly charged tale not as one of aggression, but rather welcome intimacy, helped by the inclusion of Cupid in the bottom right corner.

 

Achilles

The Education of Achilles by Auguste-Clément Chrétien, dated 1861

The Education of Achilles by Auguste-Clément Chrétien, dated 1861
 

Achilles is known as one of the greatest heroes of all of Greek mythology, his story made famous by Homer in The Illiad. The only surviving child of the sea nymph Thetis and the ancient King Peleus, Achilles knew from a young age that he was destined for a life of adventure and heroism.

 

Thetis, who wanted her son to live a long and extraordinary life, dipped the young Achilles into the River Styx while holding him at the foot in an attempt to make him immortal. The rushing water protected the young boy and made him invincible all over, except, of course, the heel that remained dry.

 

Although Achilles is most remembered for this one weakness, which would eventually lead to his tragic downfall, artists like French Academician August-Clément Chrétien’s enjoyed capturing the warrior in his prime. Here, Achilles is depicted as a youth with the centaur Chiron, the legendary tutor of gods and heroes who instructed him in the arts of medicine, music, riding and hunting.

 

Perseus

Perseus by Ubaldo Gandolfi, mid-18th century

Perseus by Ubaldo Gandolfi, mid-18th century

 
Another hero of Greek mythology, the demigod Perseus was the son of the mortal Danaë and Zeus himself, and his many victories over mythological monsters are frequent subjects in art. He prevailed over the Gorgon Medusa, who could turn any man to stone with only a look, with the help of a cap of invisibility and a shield from the goddess Athena. The shield’s high shine enabled him to view Medusa’s reflection without becoming stone, allowing him to get close enough to cut off her head.
 
According to another ancient legend, as Perseus was returning home after his victory over Medusa, he stumbled upon the beautiful Andromeda chained to the rocks and being offered up as a sacrifice to a horrible sea monster. Before it could devour her, Perseus slayed the beast and saved the maiden. They later married, and Perseus eventually became King of Mycenae.
 
It is fitting then, that Perseus is always portrayed with an air of heroic determination and nobility, as in the above terracotta bust. The warrior gazes over his shoulder, battle-ready, with a physical and emotional intensity.
 

Bacchus

Homme à l'agneau, mangeur de pastèque et flûtiste by Pablo Picasso, executed 1967

Homme à l'agneau, mangeur de pastèque et flûtiste by Pablo Picasso, executed 1967
 

Depictions of bacchanalian pursuits have long been enticing and intoxicating for artists who wish to impart a lively, joyous attitude onto their work. Bacchus, or Dionysus, was the god of wine and merry-making, and he was the subject of worship in many festivals and rituals. He is always depicted drinking, feasting or carousing (or any combination of the three). This drawing by the great modernist Pablo Picasso demonstrates the long-reaching artistic influence of Greek mythology, and it embodies the carefree and somewhat mischievous attitude of this most-popular god.

 

M.S. Rau offers an array of fine and decorative art inspired by the mythical past. Explore them on our website.

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