The idea of Theseus fighting the Minotaur was a popular neo-classical subject among sculptors. Although, Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) finished his sculpture about 1850 that is in the late part of what is meant by neo-classicism, Barye’s modelling of the surfaces has a vibrancy and movement characteristic of the French romantic sculpture. Barye is well-known for his animal production and Theseus and the Minotaur is only one of a series produced by Barye from the early 1830s onwards.
The sculpture reproduces King Aigeus’ and the god Poseidon’s son, Theseus, – they both visited princess Aithra the very same night, that is Theseus had two fathers – holding his knife over Minotaur, a monster having the head of a bull and the rest of the body human, devouring human flesh. However, according to tradition Theseus killed Minotaur by means of King Minos’ daughter Ariadne. Add to this that Minotaur’s mother was King Minos’ wife – his father a bull. CONFUSED!!! However, tradition says that Minotaur was locked up in a maze in Knossos on Crete. He was nourished by a compulsory tribute of young men and women from Athens. Therefore Theseus and Ariadne decided to kill him.
Now, why did I choose to write about Theseus and the Minotaur? Well, first of all Victoria and Albert Museum is big – very big! – I therefore had to decide by which department I wanted to improve my knowledge. In many ways the 19th century was a time of unrest and upheaval: a neo-Platonic philosophy of life arose, an interest for classical antiquity penetrated, citizens acquired a considerable place in society etc. Consequently I darted into the department containing subjects from America and Europe in the period 1800-1890. Though I had now reduced my options I still didn’t know exactly what to go more thoroughly into. Nevertheless, I know a little of Greek mythology – a very little! – so I determined to deepen with Theseus and the Minotaur.
Greek mythology was a very common subject for scultors – and artists in general – in the Romantic Movement. In fact reproducing old classical subjects is very significiant to Romanticism. Where the 18th century attached importance to common sense, the 19th century – that is the first part of the century – set great store by feeling. We see this in the sculpture: The feelings for tradition, old things etc. is obvious. On the other hand it isn’t very reasonable to make sculptures of antiquated things.