Already Johann Heinrich von Dannecker’s design for Ariadne on the Panther foretold the coming of something great. Nor did the fascination ebb after the sculpture’s completion: Dannecker’s Ariadne is perhaps the most popular German sculpture of the nineteenth century.
Today it is almost impossible to grasp the magnitude of her fame: long before the invention of so-called merchandising, the motif of Ariadne on the Panther was reproduced by the hundreds in different sizes in bronze, porcelain, plaster, ivory and marble. On historical postcards of Frankfurt, we frequently encounter her side by side with the railway station, the Town Hall, or the Society House of the Zoological Gardens, and an advertising leaflet for Frankfurter sausages proudly displays her signet. Even if her story did not quite qualify for a Hollywood movie, Dannecker’s masterwork has already stood at the service of Her Majesty the Queen of England. The next time you watch James Bond’s Never Say Never Again, pay attention to the beginning. At 7 minutes and 25 seconds, the sculpture is cited as an educational asset. And when you learn about the Ariadne’s eventful fate, you’ll agree: the reference to a British action thriller isn’t the least bit out of place.
Johann Heinrich von Dannecker began work on the sculpture in 1803. The following year he ordered a block of marble, and another year after that he put his design on display, a plaster model. A review in the Teutsche Merkur lavished effusive praise on the artist. That encouraged him to make an unusual move. To begin and execute a work, the court sculptor had to request permission from Elector Frederick II. The latter approved the request, but was at no time actually interested in the work. Then, in April 1805, Dannecker asked to be allowed to sell the sculptural group to whomever he liked. Five years later, the marble block finally arrived, and he had his assistants start carrying out preparatory work on it. In 1812, Dannecker himself began working on it increasingly, and with an unconditional sense of purpose: “I at no instant withdraw from my intent to make it the principle component of my aesthetic existence.”
Dannecker found a prominent advocate in Simon Moritz von Bethmann, called “le roi de Francfort” abroad, and one of the city’s most influential citizens. Bethmann not only directed his family’s internationally operating bank, but also supported the founding of various educational institutions. In 1805, Bethmann visited the sculptor Dannecker in his studio, where he admired the design for Ariadne on the Panther. Five years later, he signed the contract to purchase the sculpture—a momentous occasion, also in view of the price. The group cost 11,000 guilders, equivalent to about 200,000 euros by today’s standards. It finally reached completion on 7 June 1814. When the Ariadne left Stuttgart in 1816, the citizens accompanied her with a chant of mourning: “Traur’, Oh Stuttgart, traur’ im Grame! Traur’ um deine schönste Dame.” (“Grieve, oh Stuttgart, grieve in sorrow! Grieve for your most beautiful lady.”)
Bethmann had a rectangular building built, which he called the Odeon. It was the first museum building in the history of Frankfurt, and soon one of the city’s main attractions. On 13 July 1816, in his letter of thanks to Dannecker, Bethmann wrote: “General admiration is Ariadne’s lot; locals and foreigners alike pay homage to her daily. There is a veritable pilgrimage to my museum.” In May 1856, after the city had purchased the land on which the Odeon stood, the Ariadne, the plaster casts and Thorvaldsen’s frieze were moved to the “Ariadneum”—an annex to the Bethmann family’s country estate in Friedberger Landstrasse. On its centennial on 7 June 1941, Moritz von Bethmann donated the Ariadne group to the city, along with all of the other works assembled in the Ariadneum. Evidently there were plans to use the building as a museum and ceremonial hall. The sculptures were therefore left in the building. On the night of 4 October 1943, the Ariadneum caught fire and was destroyed; Dannecker’s masterwork was severely damaged by the flames. In order to preserve its substance as well as possible, the sculpture was put into a plaster mould—the best measure known at the time.
After World War II, debates over the Ariadne’s restoration got underway. Scientists set about trying to determine the work’s condition and soon established that the damage was considerable. For decades, opinions vacillated on whether to restore the work. Finally, in 1977, conservators removed from the sculpture from its plaster mould, simultaneously taking steps to secure the surface or, in some cases, remove the endangered parts. They cleaned all of the pieces of grime and soot in a water bath, and stabilized them with silicic acid. Then the parts – numbering more than a thousand—were transported to the workshop of the Glyptothek in Munich. There a stainless steel framework was constructed and the pieces, having undergone a lengthy hardening process, were virtually threaded onto it, so that the plinth and the panther no longer bore any weight. The missing parts were replaced. At the same time, a casting mould was made: The Ariadnes in our garden and in the courtyard of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart are casts from that mould. Despite restoration, the group is still endangered by every movement: in the fire the marble burned to lime.
In June 1978, after her restoration, Ariadne came back to the Liebieghaus: an artwork of international distinction had thus been recovered. What is more, her return also marked the founding of the museum’s new Neoclassicism department. For years, the Ariadne was on display on the ground floor of the villa, until we undertook to reorganize the presentation of our collection in 2007. We decided to put the sculpture in the antiquities department. Dannecker himself would undoubtedly have welcomed the new location. With substantial self-confidence, he had envisaged a round temple that would have made direct reference to one of antiquity’s most famous sculptures: “I thought of a rotunda, like many ancient temples ... at its centre the Ariadne; at the top of the same, beneath the dome, there would be four windows to illuminate her in such a way that one to the north alone would provide light. The other three would be covered with a red curtain to obtain a beautiful reflection on the work. In Florence I saw the Venus of Medici illuminated in this fashion, and I must confess that I have never seen a more beautiful, softer illumination in all my life.”