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The Corinthian Maid

Grade Level: 5–6

Students will be introduced to the Greco-Roman myth of Dibutades and the creation of the first relief sculpture by critically analyzing Joseph Wright’s painting The Corinthian Maid. They will then mimic the artistic process presented in this myth by drawing an outline of their classmate to use as the basis for the own relief sculpture in clay.


Joseph Wright
British, 1734–1797
The Corinthian Maid, 1782–1784
oil on canvas, 106.3 x 130.8 cm (41 7/8 x 51 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Paul Mellon Collection



Curriculum Connections

  • Language Arts
  • History/Social Studies


  • Smart Board or computer with ability to project slideshow  and demo video
  • Paper large enough to draw life-size outline of a student
  • Pencil
  • Slab of clay (approximately 5” x 7” and about 2” deep)

Warm-up Questions

What is this woman doing in this painting? What do you think will happen next?


Dibutades was the daughter of a potter in ancient Corinth, a city in Greece whose wares first helped to establish the fame of Greek pottery. Hoping to keep a record of her boyfriend, who was departing the city, Dibutades traced the outline of his shadow on a wall while he slept. Her father filled in this silhouette with clay and fired it in his kiln. It became the first relief sculpture.

The figure of the youth is modeled after a sleeping Endymion that Joseph Wright of Derby, England, had drawn from a relief in Rome. He spent nearly two years there, recording ancient monuments and sculpture in his sketchbooks. The sparse furnishings, garments, and even the woman’s hairstyle are all based on archaeological evidence. The figures are arranged with a carefully measured rhythm along a narrow stage, as in a frieze or vase painting. A master of artificial illumination, Wright concealed a hanging lamp behind the curtain, suggesting the source of the beams that cast the youth’s shadow.

The painting was commissioned by Josiah Wedgwood, a pioneer of pottery manufacturing in England. His pottery copied the shapes of ancient vessels as well as their decoration, borrowing motifs from ancient glass, cameos, and relief carvings. Wedgwood’s fired clay vessels, decorated with low reliefs, can be seen as the descendents of Dibutades’ first relief sculpture.

Guided Practice

  • What moment of the story has Wright depicted? (When Dibutades draws the outline of her boyfriend on a wall.) What will happen next? How do you think the boyfriend felt when he awoke and saw that a relief of him had been made?
  • How does the artist use light and shadow to focus your attention on the action? (Highlights on the face of the youth and on Dibutades as she draws help to bring the two figures out of the dark background.) Where does this light come from? (Behind the curtain.)
  • The origin of what art form is explained by this story? (Relief sculpture.) On what objects do you see relief sculptures everyday? (On coins, the profiles of the presidents are raised reliefs.)
  • In this and many other representations of the same story, the young man is shown with a dog. Dogs are often used as symbols of faithfulness. Why might Wright have included a dog in this painting? After all, the dog isn’t doing much but sleeping.


Like Dibutades, students will pair up with a partner to create outlines of each other in preparation of sculpting a relief:

  1. Each student will get in a different pose—one they wish to be remembered in—against a large sheet of paper.
  2. Using a pencil, the other student will trace their outline onto the paper. Then students will switch spots so each student has an outline of their partner.
  3. Before students create their relief sculpture using this outline as their guide, present the slideshow "Relief Sculpture at the National Gallery of Art" below.
  4. Next, view the short time-lapse video by sculptor, Jammie Williams as he demonstrates additive and subtractive processes in clay to create a low relief sculpture of a female figure.
  5. Then, working from their pencil outline, students will create a relief in clay of their partner’s features and clothing. Note: This should not be the same size as their initial sketch, rather, each student should carve into a slap of clay approximately 5” x 7” and about 2” deep.

Slideshow: Relief Sculpture at the National Gallery of Art


Dibutades wished to remember her boyfriend’s likeness in clay. Imagine someone you cared for was leaving, what about him/her would you want to remember the most? his/her looks? his/her personality? What are some character traits of a good friend? honesty? faithfulness? respect?

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn10.1.5 Apply formal and conceptual vocabularies of art and design to view surroundings in new ways through art-making.

VA:Cr2.1.5 Experiment and develop skills in multiple art-making techniques and approaches through practice.

VA:Re7.1.5 Compare one's own interpretation of a work of art with the interpretation of others.

VA:Re7.2.5 Identify and analyze cultural associations suggested by visual imagery.

VA:Re8.1.5 Interpret art by analyzing characteristics of form and structure, contextual information, subject matter, visual elements, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.

View a short time-lapse video demonstrating low-relief sculpture in clay

Test your knowledge of gods and goddesses by playing the matching game "Ancient Arcade"

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Download or borrow the teaching packet Classical Mythology in European Art