Paul Manship's Diana and Actaeon, a modern yet classical pair, marks one of the artist's earliest critical successes. The creation of the two sculptures engaged the artist between the years 1921 and 1924, and their completion triggered a major turning point in his career, which elevated him to a greater position within the context of American art.
Manship, who interpreted mythological stories in his work throughout his career, "contemplated the story of Diana and Actaeon as early as 1915, while living in Cornish, New Hampshire; he began to sketch this subject at that time, and it engaged him for a decade thereafter." (H. Rand, Paul Manship, Washington, DC, 1989, p. 73)
While the characters are explicitly related in the story, Manship developed Diana first, only to create Actaeon as a companion piece three years later. "These pieces represent Manship at his most characteristic, with their use of mythological subjects, nude figures in motion, stylized animals and plants, and highly decorative patterns in which the voids are as calculated for efforts as the solids. These two pieces have always been - with the Dancer and Gazelles - Manship's most popular works." (J. Manship, Paul Manship, New York, 1989, p. 101)
The story of the ill-fated pair is saturated with irony and action which provided Manship with various opportunities for expression and creativity. "Diana (identified with the Greek goddess Artemis) is the ancient Italian woodland goddess of hunting and archery, and the defense of all wild animals, children and weak things. In classical Greek literature she was characterized by a deliberately chosen and forcibly maintained virginity; she punished those who would violate this state. Actaeon was trained as a hunter by his father. While hunting on Mt. Citheron, he came upon Diana at her bath and offended her by seeing her naked. To prevent Actaeon's boasting of this exploit, Diana turned him to into a stag, which his own hounds - trained to hunt and not recognizing him - devoured; in some versions of the tale Diana threw a deerskin over Actaeon with the same result." (H. Rand, Paul Manship, pp. 73-4)
The striking pair of sculptures, whose relationship to each other is the implied path of the destructive arrow, elicited immediate praise from critics and the public alike. Indeed, "Diana embodied the best of Manship's art, the highest aspirations of archaism and contemporary academicism, the promise for a legitimate and potent alternative to modernism, and an unsurpassable performance in bronzework. The piece left Walter Hancock, among others, dazzled by what was 'possibly the supreme example of the fluidity of line which Manship was able to achieve Its lightness takes every advantage of bronze as a medium in contrast to many later works in which the emphasis is on solidity and volume.'" (H. Rand, Paul Manship, New York, 76-77)
With Diana and Actaeon, Paul Manship confirmed his reputation as one of the twentieth century's masters, and his "style attained both maturity and monumentality. . . . Characteristically the composition is decoratively rhythmic, and 'its charm is that of a shrewdly organized silhouette.' Royal Cortissoz, reviewing the exhibition for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote of the aesthetics of Manship's style: 'An eclectic still, as he probably always will be, ineffably refined, sophisticated, a master of his craft through whom the influences of all the historic schools have seemed to flow, he yet preserves as his central merit a rich and altogether personal feeling for beauty. . . '" (W. Craven, Sculpture in America, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1968, p. 567)