Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, 1774
Angelica Kauffmann, Swiss, 1741–1807, active Italy and England
Oil on canvas
25 1/8 × 35 13/16 in. (63.8 × 90.9 cm) Frame: 32 1/8 × 42 1/2 in. (81.6 × 108 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III in memory of Neill Turner Masterson, Jr.
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Explain the concept of narrative art.
• Explain stories depicted in paintings and sculptures.
• Create drawings that illustrate events that precede and follow those depicted in works of art.
Connecting to the Work of Art
In this painting, Ariadne laments her fate after the Greek hero Theseus abandoned her on Naxos. She is hardly consoled by the chest of jewels that Theseus left for her. Instead, as her dramatic gesture indicates, she is overcome by her turbulent emotions. Through this gesture and the droop of her head, Angelica Kauffman conveys Ariadne’s feelings, which are reinforced by the gloomy landscape.
Ariadne fell in love with Theseus when he had come to Crete to kill the Minotaur, a terrible half-man, half-bull kept at the center of the Labyrinth, a winding maze. After Ariadne helped Theseus kill the beast and find his way out of the maze, the two escaped from Crete and journeyed back to Athens. They stopped at the island of Naxos, where Theseus deserted Ariadne. Dionysus, the god of wine, soon rescued Ariadne and fell in love with her.
Kauffman developed a smooth and elegant style that was both modern in spirit and popular with art collectors. Many features of this painting recall works of art from ancient Rome. The clothing, the jewel box, and the pillows are all based on ancient models. The clear colors, especially the warm reds and greens, are reminiscent of frescoes from Roman villas at Pompeii that Kauffman would have known through her associations with the court at Naples. The spirit of this picture is classical, but its execution reveals a sense of grace and refinement typical of the late 18th century.
Neoclassicism was a movement in art and other fields that looked to the ancient world for inspiration in subject and style. In painting, the Neoclassical movement was inspired by the excavations in Italy that began in the middle of the eighteenth century. Of the rich finds the excavations brought to light, Kauffman was most influenced by the frescoes, the painted decorations on the walls of the ancient villas, which were made known to the public through engravings and were avidly studied by artists.
Angelica Kauffman was a truly international painter. Swiss by birth, she was trained in Italy, the country she always loved and where she felt most at home, and became famous in England, where she spent fifteen years of her life. She was elected to the Royal Academy in 1768, and also to several Italian academies. Kauffman was popular with contemporary art collectors, and executed portraits of many rulers and of such luminaries as Goethe, the great German writer.
What different elements do you notice in the painting? Look at the scene as a whole as well as the details and accessories.
What is different about the foreground and background? What effect does that have? Look at movement, lighting, color and painting style.
Describe the woman’s facial expression and body language. What mood is she in? How would you describe her clothes and hairstyle?
How does the artist use light in his painting? And color? What can you say about the two main colors, white and red? Do they hint at certain emotions?
What brushstrokes are used for the woman? Is there a difference between foreground and background? How would this work be different if the artist used a different type of brushstroke to depict the woman?
What do you think happened before the moment chosen by the artist? Why?
The painting is very theatrical. What tools does the artist use to create dramatic effect? Look at light, color, composition and movement.
The painting was made in a much later period than the story of Ariadne and Theseus that it depicts. Does the painting itself give you any clues about the period it refers to? Look especially at Ariadne’s clothes.
What is surprising about the setting of the woman in a landscape? Does she look at home or out of place? Look at the bed and the attributes lying beside her. Describe how the juxtaposition of an ancient myth with contemporary fashion creates a duality in the work.
Apart from mythological scenes this artist also painted portraits of wealthy aristocrats and celebrities. Explain how this painting could function as both a celebration of the past and a reflection of contemporary tastes.
• Have each student select one of the focus works as the basis for a simple storyboard that depicts the events leading up to, including, and following that shown in the work of art. (see Art Lesson: Drawing Storyboards)
• Compare and contrast the students’ storyboards, discussing how students have told different stories about the same work of art.
• Discuss storyboards as a technique used to develop narratives for advertising and filmmaking.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.