Gustave Moreau developed a highly personal vision that combined history, myth, mysticism, and a fascination with the exotic and bizarre. Rooted in the Romantic tradition, Moreau focused on the expression of timeless enigmas of human existence rather than on recording or capturing the realities of the material world.
Long fascinated with the myth of Hercules, Moreau gave his fertile imagination free rein in Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. Looming above an almost primordial ooze of brown paint is the seven-headed Hydra, a serpentine monster whose dead and dying victims lie strewn about a swampy ground. Calm and youthful, Hercules stands amid the carnage, weapon in hand, ready to sever the Hydra’s seventh, “immortal” head, which he will later bury.
Despite the violence of the subject, the painting seems eerily still, almost frozen. Reinforcing this mysterious quality is Moreau’s ability to combine suggestive, painterly passages with obsessive detail. The precision of his draftsmanship and the otherworldliness of his palette are the result of his painstaking methods; he executed numerous preliminary studies for every detail in the composition. In contrast to such exactitude, the artist also made bold, colorful watercolors that eschew detail, as exercises to resolve issues of composition and lighting.
Moreau seems to have intended this mythological painting to express contemporary political concerns. He was profoundly affected by France’s humiliating military defeat by Prussia in 1870–71. Whether or not Hercules literally personifies France and the Hydra represents Prussia, this monumental work portrays a moral battle between the forces of good and evil, and of light and darkness, with intensity and power.
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Heerlen, Stadsfalerij, Gustave Moreau, 1991, no cat. no.
Mexico City, Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo, Gustave Moreau sur legado, 1994-95, no cat. no.
Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art, Gustave Moreau, March 21-May 14, 1995, cat. 23 (ill.), traveled to Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art, May 23-July 9.
Rome, Accademia di Francia a Roma, Villa Medici, Gustave Moreau e l’Italia, 1996, no cat. no.
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Gustave Moreau, 1998-1999, cat. 58 (ill.), traveled to The Art Institute of Chicago, October-April 1999 and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 1999-September 1999.
Sold by the artist to Louis Mante (1857-1939), Marseille on July 26, 1887 for 30,000 francs; by descent to his heir, Juliette Mante (died 1956), Marseille, his widow retaining custody; Mante sale, Paris, Galerie Charpentier, November 28, 1956, lot 6 (ill.). Richard L. Feigen, Chicago and New York by 1961 [see New York 1961]. Jacques Seligmann, New York. Mrs. Eugene A. Davidson, Chicago by 1964; given to the Art Institute, 1964.
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