Hercules Upholding the Heavens, 1918
Paul Manship, American, 1885–1966
128 × 84 × 45 in. (325.1 × 213.4 × 114.3 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Mellie Esperson
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Tracing Past to the Present
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.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Hercules Upholding the Heavens depicts a moment in the mythological story of Hercules, a fabled hero of Ancient Greece, the son of the Greek god Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. As a punishment for killing his children in a fit of madness, Hercules was forced to perform twelve tasks assigned by the gods. For one task, Hercules asked Atlas to retrieve the golden apples that were guarded by Ladon, a multi-headed dragon. Atlas entrusted the weight of the heavens to Hercules, which Atlas had been forced by the gods to support on his shoulders. When Atlas returned with the apples, he decided to leave Hercules with the eternal responsibility of upholding the heavens. Hercules asked Atlas if he would take his place just long enough for him to fetch a cushion for his shoulders. Atlas obliged, and Hercules fled, never to return.
Manship’s sculpture depicts a specific moment from this myth—when Hercules is holding the heavens upon his shoulders. In choosing to portray Hercules at this specific moment, the sculptor was able to convey a contradictory sense of energy and action in contrast to stillness. Although his tense, toned muscles suggest that Hercules is in a moment of action, his kneeling position is one of still, motionless contemplation. He grasps a club in his left hand and is cloaked in the protective skin of the Nemean lion—. Both items are Classical attributes and identify the figure as Hercules. Here, man and beast (represented by the lionskin) meld together into one symbol of power.
Despite its imposing size, Manship’s bronze sculpture is sleek and streamlined. The negative space of the sphere is treated with as much importance as the sculpture itself, providing a sense of balance and modern elegance to the massive sculpture. The linear stylization of Hercules’s hair and drapery—as well as his realistic, anatomically correct musculature and proper weight distribution—indicate Manship’s traditional knowledge and technical skill, as well as the influence of ancient Greek art.
Commissioned by Charles M. Schwab in 1918 for display in his outdoor garden, the sculpture functions as a sundial of heroic size. The finely modeled bronze bands of the open sphere have the names and symbols of the zodiac, representing the heavens, inscribed in relief. Additionally, Roman numerals are etched in the center of the sphere to indicate the hours of the day. The juxtaposition of the classical, realistic elements with the sleek and streamlined further contributes to the modern tone of this sculpture.
While in Europe, Manship was greatly influenced by classical works and subjects that became recurrent motifs in his works. The influence of the Art Deco movement inspired him to use bold lines, geometric shapes, and streamlined forms—making the artist and his works of art intensely modern for his time.
- What do you first notice about this sculpture? Describe the figure and the various objects that he holds.
- What clues reveal that this work of art is part of a larger narrative?
- Consider the posture of the figure. What does his strained pose reveal about the narrative?
- This sculpture depicts a specific scene from the mythological story of Hercules holding the world on his shoulders. Why do you think the artist would choose this specific moment within the narrative?
- Describe how the sculpture depicts both a sense of action and stillness.
- What elements does the artist incorporate to achieve a sleek and streamlined effect despite its monumental size?
- What does the inclusion of negative space within the sphere add to the sculpture? How does the sphere balance with the figure of the man?
- Compare this work to sculptures from ancient Greece that emphasizes the beauty of anatomically correct bodies. How is this sculpture similar to its archaic predecessors?
- On the other hand, how does the artist modernize the work so that it feels fresh compared to ancient Greek works of art?
- What does the monumental size of the figure add to this work? How would the tone of the work change if the sculpture were table-top size? What if it were placed on the ground instead of on a pedestal?
- Even though the figure struggles to hold the world on his shoulders, how is his strength and heroism revealed?
- How would the message of this work be different if Hercules was depicted standing upright and without any signs of struggle? Do you think the sculpture would be as powerful?
- Consider the culture of America at the turn of the century. Why do you think the artist would chose to create a sculpture that uses both classical and industrial references to honor the past, as well as the present?
- Explain how this work can be viewed as a celebration of modernity.
- This sculpture was originally intended to be displayed in an outdoor garden. Does that change the meaning of the sculpture? Why or why not?
- What associations do we hold for works of art that are placed in gardens or public spaces? How does this work carry the same monumental and grandiose tones of public sculptures that honor heroes?
- Explain how this work can be viewed as a celebration of modernity.
Connecting to the Classroom
- How is Hercules still characterized in our time?
- How could we compare Hercules’s struggle with the United States’ struggle during the time this sculpture was created? Or the struggle of the United States today?
- Have students search through a newspaper or selected texts to find myths adversities in current events. What figure or figures represent Hercules in our society? What role does myth play in our own culture?
- Have the students choose another figure in Greek myths and compare with a celebrity today. How are they alike or different?
Subject Matter Connection
This subject matter is studied in Social Studies as well as English/Reading. It is important for students to see the relationships between past and present societies, as well as connections throughout the content areas. However, we have to encourage students to make these connections.
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.