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Theseus Slaying the Centaur Bianor

Barye’s skill at showing animal anatomy and realistic movement can be seen in the horse body of the Centaur.

Barye is best known for vivid depictions of animals in action, especially of fierce predators attacking prey.
Antoine-Louis Barye, Panther Devouring a Rabbit, 1850, Bronze, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gift of James J. Hill III, Maude Hill Schroll, and Louis W. Hill, Jr.

Barye’s animal sculptures look incredibly real.
Antoine-Louis Barye, Lion and Serpent, 1832-33, bronze, Musée du Louvre, Department of Sculptures, LP 1184. Photo: Etienne Revault. 2000 Musée du Louvre/Etienne Revault

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Animal Enthusiast

Barye’s interest in animals and his desire to sculpt their likenesses made him a frequent visitor to menageries (zoos), especially in Paris. He sketched live animals in motion and studied the bodies of animals after they died.

Barye’s skill at modeling animals is obvious in the Centaur struggling at the hands of Theseus. Its horse body is muscular and flexed in action as the Centaur twists and writhes to free itself. We can sense the violent movement because Barye has shown every detail with such care that the mythical being seems real.

Animals in action were Barye’s most common subject and the one for which he is best known. Barye was the first artist to make animal sculpture a major art form by portraying animals with the same dignity and naturalism used in picturing humans. In Theseus Slaying the Centaur Bianor, the hero’s human body and the Centaur’s horse body were both sculpted with the same expert skill and craftsmanship.

Eugéne Delacroix, who lived at the same time as Barye, also studied animals at the menagerie in Paris. This lioness shows his attention to creating a naturalistic likeness.
Eugéne Delacroix, Reclining Lioness, 1855, oil on panel, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, bequest of Mrs. Gertrude Hill Gavin
September 2009