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» » Mythological Themes in the 19th Century Decorative Arts

Mythological Themes in the 19th Century Decorative Arts

July 03, 2019 | Galerie Atena


Red Enameled Keepsake Box with Mythological Scene

Jewelry Box Featuring The Rape of Europe, Circa 1850


"Eight mahogany chairs lined up against the white-painted paneling. An old piano supported, under a barometer, a pyramidal pile of boxes and cartons. Two tapestry bergères flanked the yellow marble fireplace in Louis XV style. The clock, in the middle, featured a temple of Vesta (...)".

- Translated from French -

Gustave Flaubert, Un cœur simple, 1877.


Bourgeois Interiors and the Fascination for Antique Subjets


During the 19th century, the bourgeoisie enjoyed a flourishing situation and this social success was illustrated in particular by the living room's decor, composed of de style furniture items, the piano and the marble fireplace housing the mantel clock ornamented with antique or mythological subjects.


Louis XVI Set: Clock and Pair of Candelabra

Louis XVI Clock and Candelabras Decorated With Bacchantes, Ibexes and Putti



Renaissance and the Revival of Classicism


Mythology was adopted with enthusiasm by the artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, who decorated walls, ceilings and luxury art objects with legendary figures from the Classical pantheon. In France during the Louis XV reign, mythological figures were combined with curved lines, rocaille and exotic patterns.


Pair of Napoleon III Andirons in Patinated Bronze

Pair of Napoleon III Andirons in Renaissance Style Decorated With Putti and Fantastic Animals


Antiquity Revisited : Neo-Classicism


The taste for antique subjects born in France around 1750. This artistic movement, known as Neoclassicism, was based on a decorative repertoire drawn from Greco-Roman history and mythology. The 19th century continued this fascination with classicism and ancient civilization, and developped it in a doctrine, a style.


From the Renaissance onwards and for four centuries, Western art borrowed its models from Greco-Roman antiquity. Mythological figures and groups decorated lamps, clocks, boxes, cups, candelabras and enamel or porcelain services produced by Sèvres and other European manufactories. Furnishings ornamented with antique subjects were synonymous with "good taste" and very fashionable until the end of the 19th century.


Coffret à scènes mythologiques

Enameled Box by Klein in Paris, Decorated With The Rape of Proserpina by Pluto (on the lid), Diane Being Woken by Her Nymphs

and The Rape of Europa (on the Main Faces), a Bath Scene and Mercury Educating Cupid (on the Two Side Faces)


Gods From Antiquity


Among the favorite subjects, the legend of Psyche, Diana the Huntress, Mercury and Bacchus. Groups of nymphs and satyrs, Leda and the Swan were crafted of bronze, marble or terracotta.


Bronze Group Leda and the Swan signed Rogue, 1817


Heros of Antiquity and Literary Sources


In addition to the gods and goddesses of the Greek and Roman pantheons, the characters from the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey were also popular. Rome has the Aeneid of Virgil and the Metamorphoses of Ovid, sources just as prestigious as the two epics of Homer. Virgil presented in the Aeneid the legend of the Trojan hero Aeneas, the mythical ancestor of the Roman people. Our two Empire engravings depict Aeneas meeting Dido, the queen of Carthage, and Helen, the queen of Sparta.


Empire engravings of mythological scenes



Colored stipple engravings of mythological scenes

Pair of Colored Engravings Illustrating a Quote From Virgil : Aeneas and Helen and Aeneas and Dido, Empire Period


Cupid and the Taste for Childhood


But the most widespread pattern was certainly Cupid. Crafted of bronze, bisque or porcelain, Cupid takes on the features of a mischievous child. He is often presented in the company of young women playing music or preparing his arrows, as on our Napoleon III porcelain coffee service.



Porcelain Coffee Service With Mythological Scenes in Sevres Taste

Porcelain Coffee Set, the Cups Decorated with Cupids, the Coffee Pot, the Milk Jug and the Sugar Bowl feature Cupid in the Company of Young Women Playing Music or Preparing His Arrows



Sevres Porcelain Coffee Service With Mythological Decoration

Porcelain Coffee Set : Cupid Preparing His Arrows (Detail)



Late 19th century figural group : Cupids playing music

Bronze Group Cupids Playing Music, 19th Century


Cupid can assist Venus, Psyche or take part at the procession of Bacchus. He is dancing or drinking cups of wine, following the Bacchantes. Our pair of patinated bronze ewers in the Renaissance Revival style features a procession with putti and Bacchantes celebrating the harvest. They all carry vines, ivy wreaths and bunches of grapes. They are dancing, drinking and playing musical instruments.


Renaissance Revival Bronze Ewers by Alphonse Giroux

Renaissance Revival Bronze Ewers With Bacchanal Scene by Alphonse Giroux


The mythological figure of Cupid is also associated with the torment of love and seduction. On this Empire-period porcelain coffee service, a young woman is mourning the loss of her lover, while Cupid turns his back on her and abandons her to her solitude.


Empire Porcelain Coffee Service with Mythological Scenes

Empire Coffee Service Featuring an Allegorie of Love, Circa 1800


Sometimes, Cupid is serious and concentrated, as in L'Amour boudeur by Alfred Boucher or in the clock Cupid Reading signed by Ledure and Hémon. But Cupid was most often depicted as a joyful and laughing child, as he was in the 18th century models.


Marble Clock: Cupid Reading by Ledure and Hémon

Restauration Clock Cupid Reading Signed Ledure and Hémon, Paris


More rarely, he is an adolescent, inspired by the iconographic tradition of Antiquity, as for example on this earthenware plate from Creil where he shows to a young man how to aim straight to the heart.


Empire Plate by Stone, Coquerel, and Legros in Paris

Earthenware Plate Cupid Showing a Young Man How to Aim Straight to the Heart, Signed Stone, Coquerel and Legros, Empire Period




  • Dawson, Aileen, "Mythologie et allégorie", La Manufacture des Lumières : la sculpture à Sèvres de Louis XV à la Révolution, Dijon, Editions Faton, 2015, pp. 128-164.
  • Dupuy-Baylet, Marie-France, "Les pendules des premières années du XIXe siècle et leur cortège d'objets mobiliers", in L'Estampille - Objet d'art, n° 314, Juin 1997, pp. 76-82.
  • Impelluso, Lucia, Dieux et héros de l'Antiquité, Paris, Editions Hazan, 2013.
  • Lièvre-Crosson, Du classicisme à l'académisme, Editions Milan, 2008.
  • "Le triomphe du goût à la grecque dans les arts décoratifs français (1750-1775)", in L'Estampille - Objet d'art, n° 432, Février 2008, pp. 66-79.