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

Understanding Contrasting Situations: Force and Work

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.


This Curriculum Connection also includes John Biggers, The Cradle.

Curriculum Objectives

  • The student will be able to use the artwork to allow the student to discover how to contrast situations.
  • Contrast situations where work is done with different amounts of force to situations where no work is done such as moving a box with a ramp and without a ramp, or standing still.









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

Have the two work of arts side-by-side in a PowerPoint with a black background. It is to allow the students opportunity to practice contrasting situations before looking for it in physics.

Probe the students’ minds by asking them what words come to mind when they think of contrast. Accept all answers but work the conversation to eventually discover that you are looking at the differences.

How are these two works of art different? Have the students write down three ways.

For example:

  • One is a painting, one is a sculpture
  • One woman is holding children. The man is balancing a sphere which could symbolize the world
  • One-man woman seems to be skin and bones. The man is very muscular.
  • Their stances are very different: the woman with the children has her chest unexposed because they are buried in it, her shoulders are rolled forward; the man with the world on his shoulder has his chest open, his shoulders are rolled back.

It is important to expose that contrasting two things is finding the differences. The images have a lot of similarities, but that isn’t what we are looking for here. When students enter similarities into the discussion, accept them, but then remind them that we are looking for differences.

Extension: After teaching the lesson about work, you can return to these images and ask, “Are the people doing work?"


Show this work of art alongside John Biggers's drawing, The Cradle

If the two works of art came to life, how could they exhibit work? 

Work is a measure of the amount of energy that it would take to move an object a specified distance. When a force acts upon an object to cause a displacement of that object, work was done upon that object. For example, if you carry your desk from one side of the classroom to another, you have done work on that desk. 

There are three key ingredients to work: force, displacement, and cause. In order for a force to have done work on the object, there must be a displacement (movement) caused by the force. The total amount of work done on the object is proportional to both the magnitude of the force exerted on the object, and to the total distance that the object has moved. This relationship is expressed via the formula Work=Force*Distance. 

To explore the difference between force and work, show the Cradle and Hercules Upholding the Heavens side-by side. Use the two artworks to play a game: "Is it work?" 

Ask the students whether the following situations exhibit work. Students respond by holding a thumbs up for "yes" or a thumbs down for "no". After polling the room, ask students to explain why they answered "yes" or "no". 

  • Hercules picks up the world and lifts it above his head. [yes; he applies force which caused the world to move]
  • Hercules stands, holding the world above his head. [no; the world does not move]
  • The woman is holding the children. [no; the children do not move]
  • Hercules swings his club. [yes; he applies force to his club, which causes it to move]
  • Hercules swings his club, hits you, and you fall down. [yes; he does work on the club, and the club does work on you!]
  • The woman places the child in its bed. [yes; she applies a force to the child to move it to the bed]

Have students develop their own situations, and continue the game with their ideas. 

Subject Matter Connection

When students start making connections between things that they know and things that they are learning, they attain the information better. There is some connection between everything in the world; these are the relationships we want our students to begin to realize and understand. Our students analyze concepts or material items to some degree often; we want them to realize what they are doing and how to deepen the ability.

Resources Available to Order

Check our online collection module for further information.


  • A View, A Clue, and You: Poetry and American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
    • In this book written by MFAH educators Rita Whitman and LuAnn Turley, each work of art is accompanied by a poem filled with rich vocabulary and engaging stories that inspire looking and problem-solving skills in the classroom, reading at home, or in the museum galleries. The focus is on American art and includes artists such as Mary Cassat, John Singer Sargent, Jackson Pollock and Jacob Lawrence.

      MFAH Catalog Number: BK818
  • Sculpture: A Basic Handbook for Students, Study Guide
    • A guide to the art of sculpture. Includes extensive technical, how-to-information.

      MFAH Catalog Number: SG614
  • A Pocket Dictionary of Ancient Greek Heroes and Heroines
    • Color images of ancient works of art depict the stories and characters from ancient Greek mythology.

      MFAH Catalog Number: BK536

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