In his 1890 biography, Roger Ballu pronounces Thésée combattant le Minotaure, the earlier of Barye's two mythological works, as: "[...]une des oeuvres maîtresses du génie de Barye, et très réellement un des chefs-d'oeuvres de la statuaire française" (Ballu, 1890, p. 116). The ancient Greek myth tells how the young hero journeyed to the island of Crete, where, in the labyrinth, he slayed the half-man-half-bull beast, thereby saving the seven youths and seven virgins of Athens, its intended sacrificial victims. Rather than recording action in progress, Barye's translation of the myth to sculpture depicts Theseus with firmly planted feet and solidly upright stance, poised to plunge his sword into the brain of the Minotaur buckling beneath him. On a visual plain, the contrasting pose of the two combattants and the obvious outcome of their encounter underlie the triumph of man over beast. On a more symbolic level, however, the composition promotes the moral idea of good conquering evil. In his discussion of the work, Benge attributes the inspiration for Barye's Thésée to Henry Fuseli's figure of the executioner, in the drawing after Andrea del Sarto's fresco, Beheading of John the Baptist (Monastero dello Scalzo, Florence; Benge, 1984, p. 117). Benge also credits the source of the group's composition to drawings of grappling boxers found in the sketchbooks of the painter, Théodore Géricault and copied by Barye.
Two basic variants of Thésée combattant le Minotaure exist, modifications to the base being the principal difference between the première version (see Poletti & Richarme, 2000, no. F31, p. 106) and this, the seconde. Following its refusal by the Salon committee in 1843, the first version was offered in Besse's catalogue published the following year. Although the modèle was subsequently acquired by Brame at the Atelier sale, the earlier variant does not appear to have been edited posthumously. The modified second version first appears in Barye's 1857-8 catalogue, and, one of the most expensive lots in the Atelier sale, the modèle offered here was acquired in 1876 by Goupil and subsequently edited with great success by Barbedienne.
An early épreuve d'artiste of the première version of this model, stamped BARYE, numbered 1 and dated 1843, was sold Sotheby's London, 19 April 2000, lot 244 (£119,000).