Antinous — In Pursuit of Beauty

By Sotheby's

The upcoming Erotic: Passion & Desire sale in London on 15 February will present a rich chronology of artworks from the masters of painting, sculpture and photography. Here, we take a closer look at two portraits of Antinous — one of the enduring figures of classical antiquity.  


To experience classical sculpture alongside an abstract reinvention of the human body by Pablo Picasso or Jeff Koons, is to understand the thread between centuries of figurative art and the more critical examinations of recurrent themes that have long captivated artists: The Body, Love and Desire.

We have seen artists return to the same faces and historical figures time and again: Images of the goddess Venus have been made throughout history by Rubens, Botticelli and Edouard Manet; Picasso devoted many hours in the studio to painting his muses — Marie-Thérèse Walter was the focus of no fewer than 40 works by the artist, and Robert Mapplethorpe produced an extraordinary body of work studying the male body in intricate detail, finding new methods of presentation to delight and shock audiences for several decades. There is one such figure whose legacy has endured in art, film, literature and the stage, who is often cited in critical discourse on early homosexuality. His prominence strikes a resonant chord, and the origin of his narrative lies at the heart of ancient Rome.


Antinous was the male lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138). Celebrated throughout history for his good looks, Antinous has subsequently become a symbol of same sex love. This beautifully carved marble bust combines the allure of the biographical portrait with an idealised classical representation of male beauty. Its remarkable presence is only enhanced by the tragic story of Hadrian’s intense love for his favourite companion who mysteriously drowned in the Nile in AD 130, plunging the Emperor into a period of prolonged mourning.

In the Roman world the concept of homosexuality was different to how it is understood today. Same sex love found its precedent in Greek culture, in which relations between a younger and older man were seen as a valuable experience, and almost a rite of passage. In Rome, there was no clear distinction between heterosexual and homosexual love, and the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous, the Grecian youth from the city of Bythinion-Claudiopolis in modern Turkey, must be viewed within this context.

Relatively little is known about Antinous' life, aside from the fact that Hadrian toured Asia Minor in AD 123 and may have been introduced to the young man during this time. Many theories have surrounded his death, including forced suicide by jealous courtiers and ritual sacrifice, though Hadrian maintained it was an accident. Whatever the explanation behind his death, at 19 Antinous was becoming a man, and therefore his relationship with the Emperor was untenable. The effect of Antinous’ death was profound, Hadrian established a city in Egypt, Antinoopolis, in his honour, and even encouraged his veneration as a god.


It is to this god-like status that American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was drawn when he made his photograph Antinous in 1987, choosing to place the marble figure in the centre of the frame and position the drape as though he was pulling the curtain. Having trained as a painter and sculptor before switching his focus to photography, Mapplethorpe's studies were as precisely considered as if he himself was chiselling from marble or stone. 

His sculptural approach to photography is brought full-circle in this image of Antinous. Through the textured, draped fabric that surrounds the figure, Mapplethorpe references early still life photography and the fashion for mimicking the conventions of paintings through this new and radical medium. Though there is a more potent reference here – Antinous is Mapplethorpe’s homage to historic representations of a subject matter that placed him squarely at the centre of controversies at the height of his career. His works were detailed anatomical studies, yet filled with a sexual tension and a provocative charge that left him open to criticism.


In the 1980s, Mapplethorpe's works sparked a debate on public funding in the arts as the homoerotic content was deemed too controversial to be financially supported by a government body as had been planned for his exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. Antinous is considered one of the first Gay Icons in recorded history, so he was a fitting subject for Mapplethorpe, whose other projects explored the role of male homosexuality and body politics.

In 2017, the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain was one of the most successful shows the gallery has seen in recent years, and widely regarded as a significant survey of an overlooked canon. Marking the 50 year anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Britain, the exhibition opened a rich and overdue dialogue between the art and artists of the past, and what remain very relevant issues on gender, sexuality and identity politics. This artistic acknowledgement and celebration of sexuality is resumed at Sotheby’s in the forthcoming auction Erotic: Passion & Desire. The sale will present an abundance of historic objects and artefacts which resonate deeply with a contemporary audience; and that have served as the catalyst and inspiration behind many works by the artists, designers and writers of today.


Mapplethorpe turned his camera on sculpture on several occasions, and an exhibition called Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition was held at the Guggenheim in 2005. His Gelatin silver print Apollo (1987) remains in their collection. Mapplethorpe once said photography was "the perfect way to make a sculpture" and combined the principles of the two mediums in his quest for the perfect image. 

Whilst they are highlights of the sale, these works are among countless depictions of Antinous in existence which reinforce his position as a celebrated idol of classical antiquity; this sculpture compares particularly closely to a bust in the Louvre, believed to have been carved after a Roman marble in the Museo Nacional del Prado.

In considering these works side-by-side, the viewer is captivated by enduring images of this enigmatic figure. Both Mapplethorpe and the anonymous 18th Century French sculptor were striving to capture an ideal of classic beauty, but also the reverence of love and desire. Though his end was premature and tragic, Antinous remains an Icon – and a Muse. 


CLICK HERE to view the full catalogue.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's