Joshua Reynolds

Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents

Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents
(click image to zoom-in)
Author: Joshua Reynolds
Painting, Oil on canvas, 303x297 cm
Origin: Britain, 1786-1786

In 1785 Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, was commissioned by Catherine II of Russia to paint a picture for her on any historical subject. The precise choice of theme was left to him. Reynolds decided not to show any concrete event, preferring the universal language of Classical mythology. He selected one of Pindar's Nemean Odes. The infant Hercules, son of Alcmene and Zeus, became the object of the bitter jealousy of Zeus's wife Hera, who sent two huge serpents to kill him. But to the surprise of those around, hurrying to save the child, the infant himself dealt easily with the monsters. In this subject the artist saw an analogy with the might of the young but powerful Russian empire. Exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1788, the painting met with a mixed response, from the most critical to the most eulogistic. This was the height of the expression of Reynolds's classicizing tendencies, founded on the universality and significance of ideas captured in concrete form. The artist preferred the study of Old Masters, particularly the work of the Flemish artists and of Rembrandt, to the study of monuments from Classical Antiquity. Unfortunately, Reynolds experimented with paints and techniques and the surface of the painting began to show signs of physical distortion and changing colouring even in the 18th century.

The painting is interesting in that Reynolds spent more time working on it than on any other work he created, and particularly in that it includes quite a few portraits. The soothsayer Tiresias has a close likeness to the writer and philosopher Samuel Johnson, for instance, while in the features of Hera we see a portrait of the great tragic actress Sarah Siddons.

Personage: Heracles, Hercules
Style: Neo-Classicism
Source of entry: acquired from the artist by Catherine II, 1789
Theme: Allegory

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