Jacques Lipchitz

Study for ‘Prometheus’


Not on display

Jacques Lipchitz 1891–1973
Original title
Etude pour 'Prométheé'
Ink and gouache on paper
Support: 308 × 241 mm
Presented by Mr and Mrs Jack Steinberg through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973

Display caption

Prometheus strangles the vulture sent by the gods to punish him for bringing fire to mankind. For Lipchitz, this symbolised democratic freedom at a time of totalitarianism. The sketchy handling of this watercolour anticipates the bold carving of the sculpture of Prometheus that Lipchitz created for the 1937 International Exhibition. The nine-metre-high plaster monument was branded 'Bolshevik' by a right-wing newspaper campaign and it was destroyed in 1938.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Jacques Lipchitz 1891-1973

T01755 Study for 'Prometheus' 1936

Inscribed 'Lipchitz' t.r.
Ink and gouache on brown paper, 12 1/8 x 9 1/2 (30.8 x 24)
Presented by Mr and Mrs Jack Steinberg through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973
Prov: Mr and Mrs Jack Steinberg, London (purchased from the artist through Marlborough Fine Art, London, 1973)
Exh: Lipchitz: Studies for 'Prometheus', Museum of Modern Art, New York, touring exhibition circulating in the USA and Hawaii, September 1946-May 1948 (12); Jacques Lipchitz: Sculptures and Drawings, Marlborough Fine Art, London, May 1973 (52, repr. in colour)
Lit: 'J. Lipchitz writes "The Story of my Prometheus"' in Art in Australia, June-August 1942, pp.28-35; Irene Patai, Encounters: the Life of Jacques Lipchitz (New York 1961), pp.281-5; Bert Van Bork, Jacques Lipchitz: the Artist at Work (New York 1966), pp.168-70, repr. p.169; Jacques Lipchitz with H.H. Arnason, My Life in Sculpture (London 1972), pp.136-40
Repr: 12 Dessins pour Prométhée (Paris 1940), n.p.; W.J. Strachan, Towards Sculpture: Maquettes and Sketches from Rodin to Oldenburg (London 1976), colour pl.111

Lipchitz described how the thought of making a sculpture of Prometheus had interested him for a long time and his original idea had been to show him triumphant, having broken his chains, as a personification of human progress. However the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933 and the events which followed convinced him that 'the moment of triumph had not yet sounded: quite the reverse, the moment of death struggle approached'.

When he was asked in 1936 by the Director of the Paris International Exhibition of 1937 to participate in the decoration of the Palais de la Découverte (Discovery and Invention) he accepted enthusiastically, thinking that this would be a setting exactly suited for Prometheus. He wanted to make a sculpture which would convey the message to mankind: 'If you desire to continue freely in your creative work, it will be necessary for you to enter the struggle and conquer the forces of darkness that are about to invade the world'. After many attempts, he made a Prometheus, young and robust, wearing a Phrygian bonnet, a symbol of democracy; and an enormous vulture with both feet armed with huge claws, gripping the vitals of his antagonist. The struggle is terrible, but Prometheus battles well and will be the victor. He chokes the bird by the throat with one hand and with the other he assuages the wounds inflicted by the claws. The finished sculpture, in plaster about 9 metres high, was placed over one of the entrances to the Grand Palais (which housed the Palais de la Découverte), at a height of 12 metres above the ground, but was taken down after the exhibition closed and then smashed to pieces, as the result of a virulent press campaign against it.

Work on the project began in the summer of 1936. Lipchitz said that he was drawing day and night at the time, trying to work out all the implications of the theme, and that he began by making sketches of 'Prometheus keeping the fire', with the torch, and 'Prometheus the Conqueror', before deciding to represent the conflict with the vulture. The touring exhibition devoted to the studies for 'Prometheus' organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1946 included no fewer than 26 preliminary drawings. One particularly similar to this, the same size and dated 1936, is reproduced in The Drawings of Jacques Lipchitz (Curt Valentin, New York 1944), pl.1. Both represent a fairly advanced stage but show Prometheus throttling the vulture with both hands round its neck, whereas in the later studies and in the finished sculpture itself his left hand is grappling with the vulture's right foot. Lipchitz felt that the first arrangement created a volume which warped the ensemble and that the modifications gave greater eloquence to the theme, opened up space and permitted one to see the depth.

He subsequently took up the theme of 'Prometheus strangling the Vulture' again in 1944, when commissioned to make a bronze sculpture for the new Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio de Janeiro.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.450-1, reproduced p.450

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