Gods, Heroes, Legends: Myths in 19th century Antiques

Antique tapestry depicting the story of Bacchus and Ariadne, Mayfair Gallery.

Since the beginning of time, myths and legends have been a pervasive cultural phenomenon, evoking a lost, heroic golden age whilst often at the same time providing the origins of humanity. In particular, the gods and heroes of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds remain to this day an important part of the collective social consciousness of the West. Following the Renaissance revival, images of mighty gods and famed mythological scenes have dominated both the decorative and fine arts for the last half a century, attempting to evoke the sense of prestige that had come to be associated with the ancient world.

Using select pieces from Mayfair Gallery’s collection, join us as we zone in on the world of 19th century antiques, examining the ways in which paintings, sculpture, furniture, and decorative wares employed classical myths in their decoration and design.

Explaining the Everyday: Mythology in the Ancient World

The mythological stories of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds were populated by gods and heroes, and many myths addressed the complex relationship between the immortal divine and the mortal human.

The Olympian gods had a religious function for ancient Greek and Roman citizens, with different gods worshipped in different areas. Yet, unlike the gods of our modern-day religions, which are often all-powerful abstract beings, Greco-Roman deities were decidedly anthropomorphic. They were typically pictured in human form, and like humans, they were fallible, often prone to jealousy or vindictiveness despite their powers and immortality. Many myths involving the gods often warned about the dangers of transgressing the divine: for example, the goddess Athena famously turned Arachne into a spider for being a better weaver than her.

The renowned statue of the Venus de Milo, Louvre Museum, Paris. Despite her (famously) missing arms, the statue emphasises how gods and goddesses were conceived of as having a distinctly human form.

Alongside immortal gods, mortal heroes like Hercules, Jason, and Atalanta, populated mythological stories, often as parables for positive and negative ways of life. As well as this, long-form epic tales were often used to help explain the origins of civilisation: Virgil’s Roman epic The Aeneid uses a cast of ancient heroes (and gods) to explain the origins of the Roman people and their glorious empire.

In this way, ancient citizens saw themselves reflected in the heroes and deities they venerated, blurring the boundary between ‘myth’ and ‘history.’ These stories, passed down orally from generation to generation, provided explanations of the origins of humanity, as well as fables by which to live a moral and reverent life.

Terracotta kylix (drinking cup), attributed to the Amasis Painter, c. 540 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This kylix immortalises a scene from Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, where the sea-god Poseidon urges on the Greek heroes. The cup emphasises the widespread dissemination of the legendary stories of the Greek past, with even functional items decorated with mythological scenes.

Living a life of virtue: mythology in the Neoclassical period

Following the general resurgence of classical imagery in the West during the Renaissance period, a particular surge of interest occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. The excavations of the ancient sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid-18th century inspired artists and designers towards a greater degree of accuracy, carefully copying ancient vase and furniture shapes as well as artistic motifs to create a new ‘Neoclassical’ style.

This pair of Neoclassical vases emulates the shape and design of volute kraters, vessels with an egg-shaped body and handles that rise from the shoulder and curl in a volute (scroll-shaped form).

In 1764, German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann published his monumental study The History of Ancient Art. In the text, he wrote effusively about the perfection of ancient art and design, and urged contemporary artists to emulate its simplicity of gesture and expression. His work was highly influential, and artists and designers of the late 18th and 19th centuries turned back to mythology and ancient history to stir men of their own generation into action. Just as in ancient times, the mythological age was called upon as an exemplar of morality.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784. One of the best-known paintings in the Neoclassical style, the 18th century painting depicts a popular Roman legend that stresses the importance of patriotism. See a decorative version of the same theme here.

Works in focus: 10 pieces from the MG collection

19th century art and design were therefore populated with classical influences. 19th century makers imitated the forms of classical architecture, sculpture, and decorative wares, adorning their works with scenes from the myths of antiquity. But which myths proved the most popular, and why? Let's take a look at eight key works from the Mayfair Gallery collection to find out.

Immortal power: gods and goddesses

Despite no longer being worshipped as religious deities, the sense of power surrounding the Olympian gods pervaded into the 19th century. Accordingly, images of ancient gods and goddesses were often imitated or added to decorative wares, in order to evoke the sense of grandeur that they had long been associated with.

One of the most common choices was Venus (Greek; Aphrodite). As the goddess of love, Venus’ image could immediately embellish an object with grace and beauty. Such feelings could be made even more pure when paired with her charming cherubic son Cupid: the painted scene on this Sèvres style porcelain and ormolu clock set combines a stunning depiction of Venus and her son with decadent ormolu and porcelain detailing. 

Sèvres style porcelain and ormolu clock set by Barbedienne and Sévin, Late 19th Century. This piece from Mayfair Gallery’s collection highlights how the image of Venus was called upon to imbue objects with a sense of rare beauty.

An Empire period ormolu mantel clock conjures up similar notions: Venus is depicted draped across the top of the clock, book in hand, as she addresses her curious son. Here, the pair evoke not only notions of beauty, but also education and learning in Venus’ role as a mother: perfect symbolism for an object that would sit on a living room mantelpiece.

Empire period ormolu mantel clock depicting Venus and Amor, Early 19th Century. The image of Venus with her son connotes notions of not only beauty but also maternity.

Likewise, the image of the god Apollo was frequently utilised to evoke similar feelings of majesty and opulence. This marble bust is after the famed classical sculpture of Apollo Belvedere, a Roman copy of a bronze Greek original that was rediscovered in Renaissance Italy. Since the 18th century, the original statue has epitomised the aesthetic perfection of the classical age, and sculptural imitations like this piece effectively replicate the ‘divine’ magnificence of the original.

Carved marble bust after the Apollo Belvedere, 19th Century. Even in bust form, this marble cast of the bronze original reflects the divine beauty and majesty of the god.

Also popular was the image of Apollo in his role as the ‘sun god,’ who would make the sun rise every morning by pulling it across the sky in his golden chariot. Crafted by the renowned Parisian maker Maison Krieger, this large sideboard buffet cabinet utilises this motif as its central decoration, rendered in shining ormolu that evokes the famed image of the rising sun.

Very large Empire style sideboard buffet cabinet by Krieger, c.1900. The central ormolu panel shows Apollo’s power and responsibility as he draws the sun across the sky.

Mortal power: heroes and heroines

Alongside images of ancient mythological deities, the human characters of classical myth were also popular subjects in the 19th century. Whilst gods and goddesses were utilised to imbue objects with a certain celestial grandeur, scenes from mortal mythology allowed for more direct comparisons to 19th century values.

In this magnificent tapestry modelled after the Flemish artist Bernard van Orley (1491-1541), the great hero Hercules (Greek; Heracles) is depicted carrying the world on his shoulders. The image finds its origins in the myth of Hercules’ 12 labours: to allow the titan Atlas to retrieve Zeus’ golden apples for him, Hercules held up the weight of the world, which usually rested on Atlas’ shoulders. The myth was highly popular from the Renaissance onwards, with Hercules seen as a paragon of physical and mental strength as he took on the both literally and metaphorically heavy task of carrying the world.

The subject of Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders captivated artists working in a variety of mediums: in both this tapestry from the Mayfair Gallery collection (19th century) and this bronze statue by William Brodie (1873), Hercules is depicted as stoic in the face of this immense task.

Similarly, this life-like patinated bronze sculpture uses a classical heroine as a paragon of morality. The model depicts Penelope, the wife of Odysseus who cleverly deterred vying suitors while her husband was away. Penelope stated that she would not decide on a new husband until the burial shroud for the tomb of her father-in-law, the old king of Ithaca, had been woven. Every night however, she undid the threads woven that day, thereby prolonging her marriage. This depiction of her sleeping with spindle in hand reflects her unyielding faithfulness to her husband: an admirable quality that made Penelope a favourite subject for 19th century artists.

The image of the ever-faithful, ever-waiting Penelope was a popular image of the ideal virtuous female in the 19th century: in both this sculpture from Mayfair Gallery’s collection (Pierre-Jules Cavelier, c.1886) and this pre-Raphaelite painting by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1864), Penelope stoically waits for her husband’s return.

All that is beautiful: putti, nymphs, and satyrs

It was not just the characters of the ancient mythological world who captured the imaginations of 19th century artists, but also the magical, idyllic environments in which these stories were situated. Whilst the ancient province of Arcadia in the Peloponnese was a real place, its wild, mountainous landscape meant that it quickly became a poetic byword for an idyllic vision of bountiful natural splendour. The term saw a resurgence alongside the Renaissance classical revival, but this notion of an unspoilt natural paradise became particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, as industrialisation swept the globe.

This is effectively illustrated by a large oil painting by the Italian artist Fabbretto. The artist combines modern-day referents – in the form of two soldiers in traditional Italian uniform – with a utopian classical past – in the form of a group of bathing nymphs and putti riding cresting mythical fish. By having the soldiers eagerly gaze at the paradise before them, Fabbretto effectively conveys the potent desire to return to an Edenic past.

Angelo Urbani del Fabbretto, Large Italian oil painting of bathing nymphs, Early 20th Century. The gestural brushwork and en-plein-air feel of this oil painting effectively convey the dreamy quality of the idyllic natural landscape, which is filled with mythical beings from the ancient past.

Such imagery extended to the decorative arts: this pair of ormolu and silvered bronze candelabra casts two playful putti in bright gold ormolu. Each putto is contrasted by a silvered bronze bird (an eagle or swan), and the cherubs and animals sit atop foliate-encrusted bases with grape designs. Even on a pair of candelabra, the designer manages to evoke the idyll of a glorious ancient past, which was filled with nature, animals, and mythical creatures.

Pair of 8-light ormolu and silvered bronze candelabra, Late 19th Century. The candelabra are filled with references to a lost mythical past, included putti and acanthus leaf decoration.

The afterlife of ancient myth

The craft makers of the 19th century did not just employ mythological themes for aesthetic purposes. By incorporating the ancient stories of gods, heroes, and mythical beasts into their works, artists and designers were able to imbue their works with a sense of divine majesty, channel mythological characters as paragons of morality, and even challenge contemporary industrialisation through an evocation of the idyllic arcadian past. The rise of the Neoclassical style, therefore, was more than just an imitation of the forms and designs of the Greco-Roman world: the pervasive use of classical mythology as a subject highlights how these ancient tales were reimagined for a 19th century audience. Whilst the ancient Greeks and Romans genuinely believed in the gods, and often viewed the ancient heroes as their very own ancestors, in the 19th century the stories instead became seen as paradigms of morality, idyll, heroism, and other qualities.

This reinterpretation of ancient myth did not end in the 19th century: artists, writers, and other creative minds have continued to rethink the classical world in the 20th and 21st centuries. With the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, many stories were reimagined from a female viewpoint, especially in the literary sphere (see for example Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, where Homer’s Odyssey is told from Penelope’s perspective). No matter the interpretation, what is clear is that these stories of a mythical past, filled with gods, heroes, and fantastic beasts, continue to stay in fashion, from 2000 years ago right to the present day.

Mayfair Gallery's collection of mythological antiques 

Mayfair Gallery is proud to offer a large selection of 19th century art, sculpture, and decorative wares inspired by the mythological past. Explore our full collection of classical-style works here.