Blanton Museum of Art

Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art

Founded in 1963, the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art (BMA) at the University of Texas has grown to be one of the largest university art museums in the United States.  In addition to the world-class temporary exhibits it attracts, the Blanton’s permanent collection contains almost 18,000 works with significant holdings in Modern and Contemporary American Art, European Art, Spanish and Latin American Art, and Classical Art. The museum is located near the Brazos Parking Garage and E. MLK Jr. Blvd (Google Maps).

Although it would be preferable to see these works of art in person, many of the images and  corresponding descriptions in the Blanton’s holdings can be found via their website.

Ancient Greek Pottery at the Blanton

The Julius and Suzan Glickman Gallery in the Blanton Museum currently houses a sizable collection of ancient Greek pottery. The decorative images that often adorn ancient Greek earthenware are some of our best resources for the early strata of artistic representations of Greek myths and mythological figures. There are numerous different types of Greek pottery, and some cases, the symbolic meaning of the mythological figure corresponds to the use of the vessel. An introduction to the different types of pottery and the art of ancient vase painting can be found via the Khan Academy.

To the left is a ceramic container called a pelike, which is from the 4th century BC. The image of Eros chasing a fawn adorns this  ancient Greek jar.  Greek myths describe Eros as the minion or son of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of erotic desire. In ancient Greek art, Eros is often depicted as a winged young man. The wings on Eros represent the volatile nature of erotic passion, and his depiction as an adolescent male reflects the strong connections Greek culture made between youth, physical beauty, and erotic attraction. The animal in this image is often identified as a spotted fawn. Based on the Greek association of maidens with various wild animals, there is reason to believe that Eros’ pursuit of the fawn is symbolic of the erotic passion for an unmarried female.

To the left is a Greek amphora from the 6th century BC that displays an image of Athena  (Minerva to the Romans), the goddess of wisdom, driving a four-horse chariot known as a tethrippon (commonly referred to by its Latin name quadriga). The tethrippon, which was used in Greek athletic contests, is often a symbol of victory in battle. Given Athena’s strong association with military strategy and the defense of the city, and given that the opposite side of the vase depicts Greek hoplites (armored foot-soldiers), the images symbolize her martial nature in Greek culture. In Greek mythology, Athena is often described as participating in battles or assisting  Greek heroes during their quests.

The image on this lekythos depicts the winged Greek goddess of victory, Nike (to the Roman Victoria). In her right hand, she holds a libation bowl called a phiale and in her left hand, she holds a type of lyre called a kithara. The phiale is a common religious symbol of the ritual pouring out of mixed or unmixed wine with the saying of prayers. The kithara is an instrument associated with dances and epic recitations, odes, and lyric songs. Both of these symbols are attributes of Nike, given that the singing of odes and the pouring out of libations were commonly associated with victories in the Greek world. The wings seem to indicate the flighty nature of victory; it never permanently rests on any one man. Although Nike is very important to Greek religion and ceremony, she is not a prominent figure in Greek mythology. In Hesiod’s Theogony (383 ff),  she is briefly mentioned as an important ally to Zeus and the Olympians in their war against the Titans.

On this pottery, Dionysus (Liber or Bacchus to the Romans), the god of wine, is seated between two satyrs. In Greek art,  satyrs  are typically depicted as bearded men with animal tails and large erect penises, both of which reflect their uncivilized nature. The satyr to the right carries a large bag of wine called an askos, which was formed from an animal’s hide. In Greek myth, satyrs are the male retinue of Dionysus, where they represent the uncontrolled semi-wild elements of the worship of Dionysus. The vines that encircle these figures is a common symbol for Dionysus. It is quite appropriate that Dionysus and his two satyrs are depicted on a kyathos, given that the kyathos is a type of pottery used for ladling wine into drinking vessels.

The William J. Battle Collection of Plaster Casts at the Blanton

The Battle Casts are a collection of life-size plaster replicas of famous marble or bronze sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome. Around 100 plaster casts were commissioned by Professor William J. Battle between 1894 and 1923 for the purpose of exposing UT students to the artistic accomplishments of Greco-Roman culture. Because the perceived value of these plaster replicas diminished over time, the Battle casts were later relegated to storage facilities around campus. The 70 or so casts that remained from the original Battle collection were rediscovered in 1977, and they were restored primarily because they were deemed to be useful models for art students in life-drawing courses. Most of the Battle Casts are currently housed in the Blanton Museum, while others can be found at various locations on campus, such as in the Classics Conference Room in Waggener Hall and in the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport. The history of the Battle Casts and the debate over their value in the museum’s collections are discussed in Teresa Krieger-Carlisle’s article, ‘Battle’-ing the Importance of the Casts.

As to their namesake, William James Battle was the 6th President of the University of Texas serving from 1914-1916. He joined the university in 1893 as an Associate Professor of Greek. Some of the plasters now displayed in the William J. Battle Collection of Plaster Casts were placed along the walls of the auditorium he would lecture in, which is why this lecture hall was known as “The Greek Room.” In 1908, Battle became the Dean of the College of Arts. He became the President of the University of Texas in 1914. After serving a rather tumultuous presidency that even threatened his position as President, Battle left UT to teach at the University of Cincinnati. He later returned to UT in 1920 as Professor of Classical Languages.  Some of his most indelible influences on the university were while he was Chairman of the Faculty Building Committee, a role he served for nearly three decades until 1948. Battle’s profound influence on UT’s campus is evident to this day, most notably the design and symbolism of the Main Building and its Tower, which was spearheaded by Battle.  Some of Battle’s other noteworthy contributions to the university were the foundation of the University COOP (1898) and the design of the university’s seal (1901). Additional information on William Battle can be found via the  Texas State Historical Association.

Not all the sculptures in the Battle Casts Collection are of mythological figures. The collection contains numerous busts and sculptures of historical people from the Greco-Roman world. However, the fact that the vast majority of the collection are depictions of characters found in Greek myth points to the grip classical mythology has had on the imagination of artists both in antiquity and today. Among the collection of Battle Casts at the Blanton are replicas of two very famous sculptures in the history of art:  the Apollo Belvedere and the Venus de Milo. Neither of these sculptures appear to have been celebrated in Greco-Roman world with the kind of fanfare that they have received in the modern era. The following explores how two of these ancient sculptures, The Apollo Belvedere and The Venus de Milo, became so famous in the modern world.

The Apollo Belvedere

This Battle Cast is of a 7 ft. 4 in. marble statue of Apollo (the Greek god of music, poetry, and prophecy), which stands today in the Vatican Museum (Museo Pio Clementino in Rome). The statue is believed to be a 2nd-century-AD Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue by the famous Greek sculptor Leochares (350 – 325 BC). Apollo is portrayed in the ‘heroic nude’, which was the common manner in which male gods and heroic figures were depicted in classical sculptures. The leaf cover over his genitalia was not part of the original sculpture; it was added after its installation into the Vatican’s court for the sake of modesty. The statue depicts Apollo, having just shot an arrow from his bow, which is one of the attributes of Apollo.  While only the handle of the bow remains in his right hand, his quiver can be seen over his left shoulder.  The conventional view is that this is a ‘Pythian Apollo’ due to the snake that is entwined around the stump he leans on. In Greek mythology (Homeric Hymn 3 to Apollo 356 ff), Apollo killed the serpent Python, a chthonic deity that guarded the sacred site of Gaia at Delphi, in order to establish his temple and oracle there. Whether this is a Pythian Apollo is a point of debate, and that said, the sculpture does provide us with an ancient Greek artistic view of Apollo that Roman artisans deemed worthy of copying.

How this statue became the famous Apollo Belvedere is a good example of how the presentation of a work of art heavily influences its perceived value.  Initially, it received little notice from artists after its discovery in 1489. That statue came to be known as the Apollo Belvedere after it was placed into the famed Cortile del Belvedere in 1511. The Cortile del Belvedere, the Court of the ‘Beautiful View’,  was designed for the Vatican Palace by the Renaissance architect Bramante in the 16th century. After the statue was placed in a prominent position in the Cortile del Belvedere, it became a celebrated work of art, attracting numerous sketches and copies from famous artists such as Dürer, Michelangelo, Bandinelli, and Goltzius. By the 18th century, the Apollo Belvedere was one of the world’s most important works of art. The extent of its fame during this period can be observed in the famous German art historian’s, Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s, high assessment of it, “of all the works of antiquity that have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo represents the highest ideal of art.” Its fame also attracted the attention of Napoleon. Beginning in 1796 and continuing throughout his years in power, Napoleon confiscated thousands of the greatest works of art, sending them to the Louvre to create his Musée Napoleon. The Apollo Belvedere was one of his most admired and coveted piece of his collection. It was given a place of honor at the Louvre because it was considered the embodiment of the classical Greek aesthetic. Consequently, it became an essential source of inspiration for many French artists. It is said that Napoleon liked to stand next to the statue so that his guests could admire both him and the Apollo Belvedere at the same time. Shortly after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the statue was returned to the Vatican. The statue’s fame began to diminish in the 19th century partly because of the Romantic movement’s rejection of the classical ideal, which the Apollo Belvedere was believed to represent. Situated among  other statues in the octagonal court of the Cortille della Statue in the Vatican Museum, today the Apollo Belvedere has lost much of its popularity. Its now simply considered to be one of the many examples of beautiful statues that have come down to us from the Greco-Roman world.

The Venus de Milo

The Venus de Milo (The Venus of Melos) takes its name from where it was discovered. It was unearthed 1820 on the Island of Melos, which is an Aegean island located between Crete and the Greek mainland. This 6’8″ marble statue is believed to be a Hellenistic depiction of Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans) dated to the late 2nd century BC.  One of the reasons this statue is widely believed to be a depiction of Aphrodite is because, unlike other statues of Greek goddesses and women, who are usually depicted as fully clothed, Aphrodite is typically depicted in statuary in a state of undress to emphasize her beauty and sphere activity, sexual attraction. The statue currently resides in Musée du Louvre, Paris, where it is known as one of the ‘Three Great Ladies of the Louvre‘ (1. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, 2. The Venus de Milo, 3. The Nike of Samothrace).

Of the numerous statues of Aphrodite/Venus which have come down to us from the Greco-Roman world, The Venus de Milo is undoubtedly the most famous today. Although it is a beautiful work of art, the statue owes much of its fame to a French propaganda campaign that began around 1821. In 1815, the famous Medici Venus, which was looted by Napoleon, was removed from the Louvre and returned to the Vatican. The departure of Medici Venus was seen as a great loss to the French because it was highly regarded as the ideal of classical art at this time. To compensate for their loss, the French authorities began a vigorous campaign to promote a statue of Venus, known today as The Venus de Milo, as a quintessential work of classical Greek art carved by Phidias or Praxiteles, two famous Greek sculptors from the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The problem with this story was that the statue was not from the Classical period, but from the Hellenistic period, which at the time, was seen as an inferior period in Greek art. The French quickly discovered that one of the pieces of marble found near the statue, which seemed to form the base of the statue, indicated that the statue was the work of a little-known Hellenistic sculptor. The inscription on the marble states, “Alexandros, son of Menides, citizen of Antioch of Meander made the statue.” To hide their embarrassment and promote the statue, they claimed that the marble could not have been part of the base due to its crude nature in comparison to the statue of Venus. After much inspection and scholarly debate, the French agreed that this statue was indeed from Milos and of the Hellenistic time frame (323-31 BC). Therefore, today it is known as The Venus de Milo. However, its fame has continued due to its prominent position in the Louvre and the numerous accolades it has received by artists over the last 200 years. Today, the Venus de Milo has become an iconic statue that symbolizes classical art.

*Additional information on the French contribution to the fame of the Venus de Milo can be found at, Base Deception.

Paintings in the Blanton

A walk through the collections of Modern and Contemporary American Art, European Art, Spanish and Latin American Art, and Classical Art reveals that classical myths and mythological figures have been popular subject matters for painters over the centuries. One of the reasons for classical mythology being so popular is that it provided artists with a common subject matter by which they could compare and respond to the aesthetic achievements of their contemporaries and distant predecessors. The other reason for its popularity is that classical myths are often interpreted in a symbolic language that can speak to issues relevant to the artist’s culture.  Thus, having a working knowledge of Greek and Roman myth, allows art historians to appreciate some of the potential meanings of such paintings.  The following paintings found in the European Art  collection provide us with two examples of the uses of classical myth in paintings.

The Education of Achilles by Donato Creti, 1710

The Blanton’s The Education of Achilles is one of a number paintings dealing with this subject matter that were produced by the Bolognese painter Donato Creti. In this painting, Creti has chosen to paint a narrative element found in the myths of many Greek heroes. Most of these heroic narrative describe how the centaur Chiron was an important figure in the early education of heroes. Here Creti is depicting Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan war, being taught the art of bow hunting by Chiron. Greek literature generally paid little attention to the story of Chiron’s education of Achilles. For example, in Book IX (631) of the Iliad, there is a brief reference to Achilles learning medicine from Chiron as an explanation for his medical abilities in his care for the wounded Patroclus. Roman authors, however, greatly expanded upon the story of Achilles and Chiron. Statius’ Achilleid, written in the 1st century AD, details the loving relationship between Chiron and the boy Achilles. Likewise, Ovid’s Fasti (5.412) reveals a Roman perception of Chiron as a father-figure to Achilles. For this reason, modern scholars have interpreted the loving relationship between Achilles and Chiron decribed in Roman literature as “a model for tutoring noblemen in ancient Rome.” The Roman narratives concerning their mutual devotion may explain the affectionate postures of Chiron and Achilles as well as the presence of a cupidesque Eros in Creti’s painting.

Creti’s interest in this mythological subject matter can be understood in the context of a long artistic tradition of depicting the boy Achilles with Chiron that dates back to the Greek vase paintings of the 6th century BC.  Creti’s decision to paint different versions of The Education of Achilles, as well as his painting of Thetis Handing Over Achilles to Chiron, may be in response to Peter Paul Rubens’ series of paintings on the life of Achilles (1630-35) that served as the models for prized tapestries that adorned the homes of nobility.  Rubens’ oil on panel painting of The Education of Achilles is said to have been partially inspired by a classical statue of Chiron being Tormented by Eros that was unearthed shortly before Rubens’ arrival at Rome. Creti’s The Education of Achilles in turn can be compared with later painters who decided to make their own statement on the toxophilic image of Achilles’s education under Chiron: Louis Jean François Lagrenée’s The Centaur Chiron Instructing Achilles (1790), Giovanni Battista Cipriani’s Chiron Instructing Achilles in the Bow (1776), and Eugene Delacroix’s The Education of Achilles (1862).

As for its symbolic meaning, from the Renaissance to the 18th century, Chiron’s education of Achilles was understood as a model for the education of nobility. Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) and Alciati’s ‘consiliarii princium (counselors of princes)’ in his Emblemata (1546) both reveal that Chiron’s centaurian body was allegorically interpreted as a mixture of two opposing principles that are necessary to the proper education of princes. In Chapter XVIII of The Prince, Machiavelli used the bi-form of Chiron’s body to point to what kind of educator would be ideal for those who are about to rule:

“​You must know that there are two ways of contesting, the one by law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man. This has been figuratively taught to princes by ancient writers, who describe how Achilles and many other princes of old were given to the centaur Chiron to raise, who brought them up in his discipline; which means solely that, as they had for a teacher one who was half beast and half man, so it is necessary for a prince to know how to make use of both natures, and that the one without the other is not durable.” –

Nicolò Machiavelli, The Prince,  trans. W. K. Marriott (Chicago, London, Toronto:   Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), p. 25.

Machiavelli sees Chiron’s body as a symbol of two different ways of governing. He equates the powerful equine body of Chiron with the value of teaching future leaders of how and when to use brute force to obtain their goals. The human part of Chiron’s body symbolizes the value of knowing how to govern by using the laws of human civilization to one’s advantage. Thus, Chiron is interpreted by Machiavelli as an embodiment of two different natures that are both necessary to teach young nobles if they intend to rule effectively.

Explore Education Iconics on the University of Minnesota’s website offers a detailed discussion of the historic symbolism of Chiron as an educator of youth.

The Allegory with Venus and Time by Domenico Piola, 1680

Domenico Piola’s The Allegory of Venus and Time is an example of how artists appropriate mythological figures to create allegorical narratives that are not found in classical mythology. The placard for this painting in the Blanton reads as follows:

In this allegory, Time, with his hourglass, presents Venus, the goddess of love, with a mature rose, as if to remind her that earthly love is as fleeting as a rose’s bloom. In response, Venus reveals her higher identity as a symbol of enduring spiritual love and divine beauty, a concept that evolved from the rediscovery of the writings of Plato and other ancient philosophers during the Renaissance. Venus here has already disarmed her son Cupid, the god of erotic love, by breaking his bow’s string. He is now unable to enflame uncontrollable desires in people and gods by shooting arrows into them. Domenico Piola, the leading artist in Genoa in the second half of the seventeenth century, painted many ceiling frescoes for churches and palaces. Paintings predating 1684 like this one are especially rare, since French naval bombardments in May of that year destroyed most of Genoa, including Piola’s house and studio.

The attributes of the gods (e.g. wings, sickle, cupidesque child) helped Piola’s audience to recognize the potential symbolic meanings in this painting. It is important to bear in mind that the appearances of classical mythological figures and their symbolic meanings change over time, creating an image that is best understood by the artist’s contemporaries. For example, a Roman of the 3rd century BC would not  equate the image of a winged, scythe-bearing old man with the concept of time. That said, the image of Time in Piola’s painting is derived from the wingless, sickle-bearing Roman god of agriculture, Saturn. The conflation of the gods Saturn, Cronos (in Greek Κρόνος), and Chronos (in Greek χρόνος) provides an explanation for how Saturn became associated with concept of time.  In early Greek mythology, Cronos does not appear to be considered the god of time. In the 7th-century-BC Greek poem known as Hesiod’s Theogony, Cronos is one of the early gods who ruled before the reign of Zeus. Because of similarities in their names, Cronos later became conflated with a Greek personification of time, Chronos (Time). The Romans equated their god Saturn to the Greek god Cronos, and in this way, the sickle-bearing figure of Saturn ultimately became associated with the concept of time. And later, Saturn’s sickle became a scythe; he gained wings; and he came to look like an old man. This transformation ultimately lead to Saturn becoming the figure we call ‘Father Time.’