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
  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence

Predicting the Future

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.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Differentiate between inherited traits and learned behaviors

•  Construct a pictorial family tree to record observations and research.






Observe Details

Develop Grit

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.


•  Study the works of art.  Determine the ages of the major characters.  What visual information helps us determine age?

•  What would the major characters have looked like twenty years earlier?  Twenty years later?  Would they be engaged in the same activities?  Why or why not?

• What examples of learned behaviors are illustrated in the works of art (riding horses, playing instruments)?


•  Study factors that influence human growth and change.  Introduce the concept of heredity.  List characteristics determined by genes.

• List physical characteristics of babies, children, teens, adults, and older people, and characteristics that are learned.

• Research and record information on growth and aging. Observe family members, study family photographs, and talk with family members of different ages.

•  Have students think about their own characteristics and discuss what they may have inherited and what may be learned.

•  Construct a pictorial family tree based on research and observations.

(see Art Lesson: Constructing a Family Tree)

Resources Available to Order

The Art-To-Go lending library features materials that may easily be integrated across the K–12 curriculum. Resources include DVDs, music CDs, children’s books, study guides, poster sets, and collection-based interpretive materials produced by the KFEC. Educators, community leaders, and docents from throughout Texas are welcome to borrow Art-To-Go resources. To place your order, search the online catalogue and add the selected items to your basket. After you have reviewed your basket, submit the order electronically.

The Learning Through Art program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is underwritten by:

Mercantil Commercebank

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.