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J. Paul Getty Museum presents Gods and Heroes: European Drawings of Classical Mythology

The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center presents Gods and Heroes: European Drawings of Classical Mythology on view through February 9, 2014, faturing a selection of close to 40 drawings dating from the Renaissance to the 19th century.

Diomedes Devoured by Horses, 1866. Gustave Moreau (French, 1826–1898). Watercolor over graphite. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Diomedes Devoured by Horses, 1866. Gustave Moreau (French, 1826–1898). Watercolor over graphite. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
The stories involving the mythical gods and heroes of Greco-Roman antiquity have inspired artists for centuries, testing their abilities to represent complex narratives in visual form. The likes of Venus and Apollo, Hercules and Achilles, have proved to be particularly rich artistic subjects not only because they had extraordinary qualities―such as beauty, creativity, strength and courage―but also for the imperfections that made these characters even more compelling. Involved in love and lust, rivalry and treachery, crime and punishment, they possessed all the passions and flaws of mere mortals, but on a much larger scale.

Depending on when and where they worked, artists have approached mythical figures very differently, sometimes treating them as pretexts for visual experimentation. Consistently, these subjects have provided artists with the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to render human anatomy. While Agostino Carracci’s Triton Blowing a Conch Shell (1600) was made in preparation for an elaborate frescoed scene on the vault of Palazzo Farnese in Rome, the drawing stands alone as a powerful depiction of the triton’s twisting body, which is depicted with striking illusionism. In a subtle display of skill, Rosalba Carriera’s Muse (mid-1720s) exemplifies the artist’s mastery of the pastel technique, which is most evident in the rendering of the young woman’s ivory skin, flushed cheeks, and rosy lips. By contrast, Gustave Courbet used a tonal medium to represent the Head of a Sleeping Bacchante (1847). His smudged, painterly application of charcoal suggests the heaviness of the subject’s slumber.

Themes of love and lust are common in classical myths, as shown by Agostino Carracci’s drawing of Cupid Overpowering Pan (about 1590). In accord with the Roman poet Virgil’s statement that “love conquers all,” Cupid, symbolic of virtuous love, is shown subduing Pan, the embodiment of carnal desire. Cupid’s crucial role in matters of love is, by comparison, merely hinted at in Jacques-Louis David’s Paris and Helen (1786). According to legend, the Trojan prince Paris abducted the Spartan princess Helen, but she fell in love with him after Cupid shot her with an arrow of desire―events that led to the Trojan War. As for mortals, love was no easy thing for mythological figures; indeed, it often ended in tragedy.

The world of gods and heroes could also be a violent one, and drawings such as those depicting the labors of Hercules, attest to this. Hercules had to perform twelve feats as punishment for having killed his wife and children in a fit of temporary insanity. Giulio Romano’s Hercules Resting after Killing the Hydra (about 1535) shows the hero with an unusually lanky body, exhausted after he has killed the Hydra of Lerna, a multiheaded water serpent that was wreaking havoc. Victorious yet weary, Hercules rests on a large rock, with bits of the slain monster lying around him on the ground. For his part, Gustave Moreau represents another of Hercules’s labors, namely when the hero had to capture the flesh-eating mares of Diomedes, the evil king of Thrace. Hercules, having succeeded in seizing the animals, feeds Diomedes’s body to his own horses. Moreau situated the atrocious episode in a dim setting that offsets the brilliant tones of the delicately executed watercolor―a refined technique that could hardly be in starker contrast with the gory nature of the subject it serves to represent.

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