Influential Classical Statues

The work of many of the artists in this exhibition demonstrates the continuing influence of a number of antique sculptures which, for several centuries, were regarded by the educated elite of the Western world as the height of artistic creation, but whose influence declined dramatically during the twentieth century with the spreading recognition that they were mostly heavily restored Roman copies of Greek or Hellenistic originals. A selection of those sculptures most relevant to the works displayed in this exhibition is illustrated here. Further information can be found in Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny’s Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900, published by Yale University Press in 1981.

The Crouching Venus

Crouching Venus, statue

Crouching Venus

Photo Courtesy the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

Many different, and slightly varying, versions of a Crouching Venus, all thought to be copies of a Greek statue made in the third century BC, were discovered from the 16th century onwards. The version owned by the Medici, and displayed in the room at the Uffizi known as the Tribuna, became the most celebrated; reproduced here is a version in the Vatican Museum in Rome. At one period the statue was thought to represent Venus just after her birth from a seashell, but it has also been described as the bathing or washing Venus.

The Dancing Faun

The Dancing Faun (statue)

The Dancing Faun

Photo Courtesy the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

This is one of the group of celebrated antique statues, including the Wrestlers and the Venus de’Medici, which has been displayed in the famous ‘Tribuna’ room of the Uffizi since the 17th century; the Dancing Faun and the Venus de’Medici were often presented as a pair in copies. The Faun is a mythical creature, often shown as a companion of the god of wine, Dionysius, who spent his time drinking and enjoying the simple pleasures of music and dancing, hence the cymbals held in each hand and the foot-clapper with which he beats time.

The Discobolos of Myron

The Discobolos of Myron (statue)

The Discobolos of Myron

Photo Courtesy the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

This is an antique marble copy of a bronze original created by a Greek sculptor named Myron, who lived in the 5th century BC, and whose statue of a discus thrower had been made famous through descriptions by the Roman authors Lucian and Quintilian. This almost complete copy was found in 1781 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. It was then restored, and images of it were published making it immediately famous as a representation of an ideal type of athletic Greek masculinity. It is now in the Museo Nazionale in Rome.

The Venus Esquilina

The Venus Esquilina (statue)

The Venus Esquilina

Photo taken by Dr Nicholas Penny

Also known as the Esquiline Venus. This statue was excavated in Rome in 1874 and subsequently preserved in the Capitol Museum. Its missing arms have not been restored, although Edward Poynter painted his Diadumenè, 1884 to show how they might have looked. He believed the statue originally showed a woman binding her hair with a strip of fabric in preparation for a bath, partly because the remains of the little finger of her left hand were visible on the back of her head, suggesting her left arm was raised to hold her hair in place, whilst the right hand wound the fabric.

The Venus Kallipygos

The Venus Kallipygos (statue)

The Venus Kallipygos

Photo Courtesy the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

Also known as the Callipygian Venus, Venus drying herself, or Venus leaving the bath. Preserved in the Museo Nazionale in Naples since 1802, where it still remains, this statue was, in the 18th and 19th centuries, thought to illustrate a story by the Greek writer Athenaeus of two girls who were trying to decide which of them had the more shapely buttocks. However, these protruding buttocks were widely seen as vulgar, and, when the painter Frederic Leighton went to the Naples Museum to study it, he found it kept in a reserved hall, with access granted only under surveillance. Illustrated here is a version in the grounds of Versailles.

The Venus de’Medici

The Venus de'Medici (statue)

The Venus de’Medici

Photo Courtesy the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

A marble statue acquired by the Medici family in the late-16th or early-17th century. It became one of the most celebrated examples of antique sculpture, revered as the most beautiful of Venuses and described by the 17th century diarist John Evelyn as a ‘miracle of art’. Its reputation began to decline during the 19th century, but copies continued to be mass-produced. The statue itself was displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where it remains today.

The Venus de Milo

The Venus de Milo (statue)

The Venus de Milo

Photo Courtesy the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

The Venus de Milo was excavated in 1820 on the Cycladic island of Melos, and given to King Louis XVIII by the French Ambassador. Louis XVIII presented it to the Louvre, where it has been exhibited since 1821. Unlike the Medici Venus, whose fame it has now eclipsed, the Venus de Milo has not been restored.

The Wrestlers

The Wrestlers (statue)

The Wrestlers

Photo Courtesy the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

Also known as the Pancrastinae, this statue was rediscovered in Rome in 1583, and purchased by the Medici family. It became famous almost immediately and was admired and discussed as an example of active and athletically developed male musculature. A cast of this group was one of the sculptures which probationers had to draw at the Royal Academy Schools.