2 Study of the Laocoon Group, Anomymous Artist

Title: Study of the Laocoon Group

Artist/Source: Unknown, possibly Flemish

Date: circa 1650

Medium/Technique: red and yellow chalk with white highlighting on paper

UCL Art Museum #4720 (Grote Bequest, 1872)

The subject of this drawing is the marble sculpture known as the Laocoon Group, one of the most important models in the history of art. Long believed to be a Greek original of the second century BC, the sculpture (approx. 7’ 10 ½” high) was found in the remains of the Roman palace of the Emperor Titus in 1506, in the presence of Michelangelo. This chalk drawing of the original statue is a serious study from the mid seventeenth century, like those of many artists who copied the monumental figures in order to fine-tune their skills at rendering the human form.

Currently in the Vatican Museum, the ancient Roman sculpture depicts the mythical strangling of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons Antiphantes and Thymabraeus by sea serpents while sacrificing at an altar. The serpents had been sent by the gods who favoured the Greeks in the war against Troy to punish Laocoon, who had tried to warn his countrymen about the danger of bringing the Greeks’ Wooden Horse within the walls of their city. Sophocles, Virgil, and many other great writers have treated the theme.

The historian Pliny the Elder attributed the Laocoon Group to three sculptors from Rhodes called Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polyclitus, who are now generally thought to have worked in the early first century A.D. They themselves may have copied it from an earlier bronze. Polyclitus’ legacy has been great, his name entering artistic discourse through the ages and his work, though little is known about it, has often been used as a point of reference. Pliny described this particular work as the one "to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced.”

The sculpture epitomizes the Hellenistic approach to the human form, with its highly segmented and massive musculature. Artists have used it as an alternative to the classical, restrained model of human form evident in the Apollo Belvedere, another ancient sculpture also in the Vatican. In fact, the resemblance of the musculature to that of Michelangelo led one recent scholar to argue that the Laocoon was a forgery by the Renaissance sculptor, a telling argument with little basis in fact. The sculpture was particularly influential on French artists’ approach to the body after Napolean brought it to the Louvre.

Like many drawings of its period, this one accepts the modifications made to the original sculpture during the Renaissance period. The extended position of a replacement for the right arm was decided in a competition judged by Raphael; Michelangelo lost the competition in a bid to have the arm bent over the right shoulder. In the 1950s, the discovery of a sculptural fragment potentially that of the missing arm led to the replacement of the Renaissance alteration with the more Michelangelesque bent arm seen today. This drawing thus records how the appreciation of canonical works of art shifts with changing understanding and valuation of human proportion.


Haskell, Francis, and Nicholas Penny, 1981. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (Yale University Press), cat. no. 52, pp. 243-47 (illustrated with the extended arm).

Catterson, Lynn. "Michelangelo's 'Laocoön?'" Artibus et historiae. 52. 2005.

Related works:

Anonymous, Laocoon, c. 1600, engraving (UCL Art Collections #4816)

Richard Cooper I, Laocoon, pencil drawing (#3780).

Mario Dubsky, Laocoonese, c. 1968, oil on canvas (#5686).

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