Great Art: Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra by Gustave Moreau
For centuries, classical mythology has been a prime source of material for Western artists. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular, these stories seemed to have near universal appeal to painters. The labors of Hercules — a series of stories that detail twelve tasks undertaken by the hero Hercules in service of King Eurystheus — were an especially popular subject among European viewers.
While paintings of Hercules abound, few artists had a more profound connection to the character than French painter Gustave Moreau. Moreau was one of the primary leaders of the Symbolist movement, and he was fascinated by the story of Hercules, a subject he returned to many times throughout his career. Moreau’s primary consideration as an artist was to convey truth through his work. In the case of Hercules, he achieved this by using the greatest hero of Greek mythology as a metaphor for the ancient, archetypal battle between good and evil.
In Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, Moreau captures Hercules in the midst of one of his most frightening and gruesome labors: the slaying of the Lernaean Hydra. In legend, the Hydra is a many-headed, serpentine monster with poisonous breath and blood. According to myth, Hercules was unable to kill the monster because two heads grew back every time he removed one. Finally, Hercules was able to defeat the monster by cauterizing the stump of each neck as he removed the Hydra’s heads.
In Moreau’s painting, this bloody struggle has not yet begun. It is an enigmatic and mysterious piece of art. Here we see the Hydra, depicted as a massive, seven-headed snake rearing out of a vaguely rendered and shadowy landscape. The twisted bodies of the Hydra’s victims are scattered at the base of its body, adding an especially sinister aspect to the painting. Hercules stands to the left, arrayed in the skin of the Nemean lion and colorful ribbons and beads.
In contrast to the murky landscape, Hercules stands out as a bright and brilliant icon of heroism. He represents archetypal good, on its way to the endless battle with evil. The two halves of the painting reflect this in their color scheme. To the right, the monster is dark and color and surrounded by shadow, while the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the lighter colored Hercules, whose figure is accented with pops of blue and red.
It is Moreau’s fantastical and unorthodox style that makes this piece both compelling and unsettling. The figure of Hercules is executed with detail and procession, while the rest of the piece exhibits a looser, more painterly style that perhaps represents the indistinct realm of myth. Many critics have commented on the otherworldliness of this painting, focusing especially on the strange, almost frozen aspect of the composition. There is no movement in this violent struggle. Instead Moreau shows us the last, fraught moment of calm before the storm.