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.
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
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.
Like Dibutades, students will pair up with a partner to create outlines of each other in preparation of sculpting a relief:
Slideshow: Relief Sculpture at the National Gallery of Art
Mino da Fiesole
marble, 126 x 43 cm (49 5/8 x 16 15/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection
Desiderio da Settignano
Italian, c. 1429–1464
Saint Jerome in the Desert, c. 1461
marble, 42.7 x 54.8 cm (16 13/16 x 21 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection
John Sigismund Tanner
English, born Germany, active 1728–1775
Minerva (Jernegan's Lottery Medal) [obverse], 1736
silver, diameter: 3.88 cm (1 1/2 in.), gross weight: 20.5 gr (0.045 lb.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Lisa Unger Baskin
Painting (La peinture) [obverse], 1897
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mark and Lynne Hammerschlag
Charles Stewart Butler and Lawrence Smith Butler, 1880–1881
plaster, 62.2 x 90.2 cm (24 1/2 x 35 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Avalon Fund and Margaret Bouton Memorial Fund
Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment, 1900
patinated plaster, 330 x 420 cm (132 x 168 in.)
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire, on loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington
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?
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