Theseus fighting the Minotaur, 2nd Version
Antoine Louis Barye
Inscribed F. BARBEDIENNE. FONDEUR.
Stamped with gold seal F. Barbedienne Paris.
Bronze with light green, red and brown patina
Height: 17 7/10" (45 cm)
Conceived 1843 and cast circa 1877
Antoine-Louis Barye was the undisputed master of the Animalier School of sculpture in the 19th Century. Breaking away from the establishment, he modelled animals with the same sincerity usually afforded to the human subject. Although Barye is best known for his sculpting of animals, it should be remembered that he did not limit himself exclusively to this subject, and that he produced numerous works of note depicting people and allegorical scenes. He was one of the great masters of Romantic sculpture along with David d'Angers and Rude.
L. Bonnat, Portrait of Antoine-Louis Barye with a wax model of “Seated lion”, 1885, oil on canvas, Walters Art Gallery
The son of a Lyonnaise goldsmith, Barye started work at the age of thirteen as an apprentice to a metal engraver in the workshop of Martin Guillaume Biennais, Napoleon’s master goldsmith. There, the young artist observed the most sophisticated technical practices current among Parisian goldsmiths, encountering neo-classical and antique models, which would prove to influence his own work in the years to come.
He later studied under the neo-classical sculptor Bosio and the romantic painter Gros. This combination of influences led Barye to develop his own style and technique of the sort later associated with the Barbizon School of painters. By the time he left the Ecole des Beaux Arts - where he studied from 1818 to 1823 - he was well-versed in a wide range of artistic sources, from antiquity through Renaissance and Baroque to the neo-classical.
In 1823 Barye went to work for the goldsmith Fauconnier modelling small decorative pieces taken from live drawings of animals at the Jardin des Plantes.
His desire to present the anatomy of his subjects led him to study preserved skeletons of animals, as well as attending dissections.
At the Salon of 1831 Barye exhibited his Tiger devouring a Gavial. This work established his artistic reputation with its powerful lines and brutal subject matter, fuelling lively discussions amongst contemporary critics on the beauty of nature even when presented in its cruellest form.
He became a favourite of the Royal House of Orleans, displaying a bust of the Duke and his Lion Crushing a Serpent at the Paris Salon of 1833; the latter model was acquired by the State and placed in the Tuileries Gardens in 1835.
A.L. Barye, Lion crushing a Serpent, conceived 1832, bronze, Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC)
In 1845 he formed a company with the entrepreneur Emile Martin and two years later, in 1847, produced his first catalogue, counting over 100 works. Public commissions also followed, including eight reliefs for the Jena Bridge and 97 masks for the Pont Neuf. In 1848 Barye was appointed curator of the gallery of plaster casts at the Louvre. He taught extensively, working at the Agriculture school at Versailles and the Musee d'Histoire Naturelle, where in 1863 one of his pupils was the young Auguste Rodin.
Barye died in 1875 and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His sculptural legacy lives on, disseminated in some of the most prestigious museums of the western world.
Barye’s final version of Theseus and Minotaur was first shown at the Salon of 1857 to great success, his first version having been rejected along with all his other entries. Earlier sculptures of the same theme exist but Barye’s idea for this more close-coupled pose is thought to have come from a drawing by Gericault originally in the sculptor’s own collection and now in the Walters Art Gallery Museum, Baltimore, USA.
At Barye’s atelier Sale of 1876 - after the sculptor’s death - the leading foundry owner of the day, Ferdinand Barbedienne, who was already a great supporter of Barye, bought 168 different models with full rights of reproduction.
This work depicts the young hero Theseus in mortal combat with the Minotaur.
King Minos had the Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull, imprisoned in a vast labyrinth. Having defeated the Athenians in battle, Minos demanded that each year they send him seven of their best warriors and seven of their most beautiful women for him to sacrifice to the monster.
Theseus, determined to end this annual sacrifice by defeating the Minotaur, volunteered to be one of the seven unarmed warriors. Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, fell in love with Theseus upon his arrival in Crete, and helped prepare him to face the Minotaur with the aid of Daedalus, the designer of the Labyrinth.
Ariadne gave Theseus a sword and an enchanted never-ending ball of thread, which he attached to the entrance of the Labyrinth before navigating the passageways following Daedalus’ instructions. Once in the heart of the Labyrinth, Theseus battled and slayed the Minotaur then followed the trail of thread to escape.
This model was considered by the Barbedienne foundry to be one of Barye’s finest and was part of the limited ‘Collection Barbedienne’ edition. Ferdinand Barbedienne personally selected Barye’s finest plaster models, from which a series of bronzes were cast bearing the gold ‘Collection Barbedienne’ seal. These are extremely rare and sought after and are typified by fine casting detail and a rich subtle patina with variations of colour running through it.
Other casts of Theseus Fighting the Minotaur are part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Walters Art Museum.
Glenn F. Benge, Antoine-Louis Barye - Sculptor of Romantic Realism (Pittsburgh: 1987), pp. 116-118, nr. 107.
Stuart Pivar, The Barye Bronzes (Woodbridge: 1974), p. 84.
H.W. Janson, Nineteenth Century Sculpture (London: 1985), p. 118.