When Zeus, king of the gods, revealed himself to his mortal lover Semele, she was at once incinerated by his divine radiance. Zeus, however, was able to rescue their unborn child by sewing him within his own thigh. Following the birth of the child, Zeus ordered Hermes, his messenger, to hide the newborn from his jealous wife Hera, who sought to destroy any remnants of the affair, including the newborn. Hermes swiftly took the baby to remote mountains for hiding, where nymphs raised the child. Under their care, the infant Dionysos grew to maturity and became the god of wine, revelry, and theater. Hermes and the Infant Dionysos depicts the messenger before he delivered the infant to the mountain nymphs.
German excavators discovered the statue in 1877 in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Pausanias, a second century A.D. historian, describes his tour of this temple in which he saw such a statue said to be by Praxiteles. Today, art historians and archaeologists disagree over whether this is an original work by Praxiteles, or one by an imitator of his style.
Trained in the Attic school of sculpture, Praxiteles was one of the most popular artists of the Late Classical period. Marble was his preferred material. In this sculpture, Hermes teases Dionysos by dangling grapes out of his reach. Hermes leans against a tree stump, over which his cloak is draped, which provides support for his arm. His weight rests on his right leg while his left foot lightly touches the ground. The off-balanced stance of the god’s body forms a new pose known as the "Praxitelean curve." His body bends sinuously, creating an emphatic S-shaped pose. The musculature is defined, but softer than previous works, giving the statue a sensuous and graceful appearance. Praxiteles advocated a new canon of proportions in which humans were slenderer, softer, and taller than the Polykleitan canon.
Known as the "sculptor of grace," Praxiteles was well known for his gentle and pleasing creations. While other sculptors of his time, such as Skopas, were creating passionate and violent works, Praxiteles fashioned intimate and playful compositions. In Hermes and the Infant Dionysos, Praxiteles depicts Olympian gods who are not wrathful and distant, but real and humanlike. Dionysos, for example, is not a miniature human but appears as a human baby with chubby hands and round head. Hermes appears gentle and smiling, a protector of youth as he cradles the vulnerable Dionysos.
Praxiteles achieved a naturalism and intimacy not seen before in sculpture. His style moved away from the hard, scientific vision of the earlier Classical Period. Unbalanced poses, sensuous forms, playful subjects, and use of emotion contrast with the previous period’s idealized and stoic works. The innovations evident in Hermes and the Infant Dionysos define the Late Classical Period and signify changes fully realized in the Hellenistic Period.