Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sculpture of the Day: Theseus and Antiope, circa 1600

Bronze Group
Possible Theseus
and Antiope
Adriaen de Vries
Dutch, 1600-01
The Royal Collection
Adriaen de Vries, the Dutch sculptor, studied with Florentine master Giovanni Bologna and adopted the Italian genius’ style of elongated figures which seemed alive with muscularity. In his own right, de Vries became a celebrated artist whose works were as sought-after as they were highly regarded.

A favorite subject matter of de Vries, as well as many sculptors of the early Seventeenth Century, was the theme of women being carried off by men. This was not so much an editorial statement in favor of abduction or cruelty to women as it was considered an opportunity to sculpt contrasting male and female figures in the process of motion. Such compositions were thought of as challenging and a fitting way for a sculptor to show his skill. De Vreis sculpted many such scenes. This one, dating to 1600 to 1601, cast in bronze, quite possibly depicts Theseus (King of the Athenians) and his abduction of Antiope who would be his bride. I say, “quite possibly” because the subject has been a matter of debate for many centuries. Recently, the sculpture has been the focus of many scientific studies intended to deduce the true subject matter—including a series of x-rays. Now, just what the researchers intended to find by x-raying the piece is unclear to me. I’m not quite sure how the internal structure of the sculpture would identify the subject of the composition.

Regardless of the names of the subjects, the sculpture is exceptional—utilizing the stylized elongation of Bologna, but with a decidedly Dutch feel to the overall composition. De Vries has compensated for the group’s natural top-heavy nature by placing the legs of the male figure quite far apart. In other sculptures of similar scenes, de Vries filled the space between the man’s legs with something quite substantial such as the carcass of a centaur. Here, however, he’s left the space void with the exception of a rather peculiar, withered plant. The plant has a purpose. If one studies it closely, we can see that the plant actually was meant to serve as a vent during the casting of the piece.

We know, of course, that like most of the Royal Family, King George IV liked to collect things. While the records that accompany this sculpture are sketchy at best, it first popped up in the Royal Collection during George IV’s reign. If he purchased the piece or if it was given to him is something of a mystery. 

Crown Copyright
The Royal Collection
Images Courtesy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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