Parthenon Frieze

Rocks, Paper, Memory

Wendy Artin’s Watercolor Paintings of Ancient Sculptures


Gallery view

This exhibition includes many images of the goddess Aphrodite. The earliest of the statues depicted in Artin’s paintings is the Ludovisi Throne, a relief of the early 5th century BC showing a clothed Aphrodite rising out of the sea from which she was born.

Nude and seminude images of the goddess Aphrodite first became popular in the mid-4th century BC. They often seem to depict the goddess in the act of bathing—and of being surprised at her bath—but they are also associated with her mythical birth from the sea. One of the most famous such images in antiquity was a painting by the Greek artist Apelles, known as the Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite Rising from the Sea). An ancient description of the painting says that it shows how the goddess “grasping her dripping hair with her hand,… wrings the foam from the wet locks” (The Greek Anthology V, trans. W. R. Paton [Cambridge, MA 1918] 16.178). Numerous small statuettes and reliefs of a standing or crouching Aphrodite holding her hair are thought to have been indirectly inspired by this painting.

Similar images show Aphrodite putting on a necklace or binding up her hair. Made of bronze, marble, faience, or terracotta, these statuettes would have been appropriate as offerings to the goddess or as marriage gifts. Included in the exhibition are a number of such objects from Roman Egypt, including two bronze statuettes, a faience plaque, and a plaster mold for making terracotta figurines; also included is one example of such a terracotta figurine, not from Egypt, however, but from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris in Iraq. This figure type is also represented by Artin’s painting of a marble statuette from Rhodes.

Another famous seminude image of Aphrodite was the Venus de Milo, an over-life-sized marble statue of the 2nd century BC, apparently set up in a Gymnasium on the island of Melos; among other things, Aphrodite was the divine protectress of young men. The head of Aphrodite may have come from a broadly similar statue.

Wendy Artin and Christopher Ratté in Dialogue


CR: Let’s talk about Aphrodite. The figure type represented by the statuette from Rhodes that you used to illustrate one of Heaney’s poems is known as the Aphrodite Anadyomene—Aphrodite Rising from the Sea. The conventional interpretation of her gesture is that, having just emerged from the sea from which she was born, she is wringing the water out of her hair. You pointed out to me that this is not the way most people would do that (they would gather their hair into a single skein and use both hands to wring it out, like a towel). What do you think she is doing?

WA: There are other images of Aphrodite Anadyomene where she appears more convincingly to be wringing out her hair. Here, unless she is planning to sit with her arms up in an uncomfortable position until her hair air-dries, it looks unlikely that that is what she is doing. For a painter, she is gracefully occupying a nicely rectangular shape of space, which eliminates the typical repetitive triangle made by the head and shoulders. But being a classical statue, it is unlikely that the sculptor simply asked her to stay in that fairly odd pose… To me, she looks like she is somewhat demurely displaying or making an offering of her hair.

More of the dialogue