Gustave Moreau: Hercules and the Laernaean Hydra
AH 260 | Lipkowski | Paper Assignment
4 Dec, 2017
Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra: Harbinger of the Death of Civilization
Painted in 1876 by Gustave Moreau, Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra is the culmination of Neoclassical ideals and moral fundamentalism in response to an art world progressing towards realism and the relinquishment of traditional values in a modernizing France. By 1876, Neoclassicism and Romanticism had fallen out of popularity with the general population of France in favor of an arts culture enthralled with the avant-garde and progress in art. Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra as a history painting is a fundamentally backward-looking idealization of strict moral absolutism and rigid social organization. Moreau, who was known by his peers and the art community as a master of symbolism, and called a Symbolist, deploys subjects from Classical mythology within a composition meant to represent good and evil. His conception of absolute truth, although beautiful and visually striking, ultimately fails within a society moving towards more subjective concerns and the experience of the individual. Although his work engages with contemporary events of war, politics, and social discourse, it represents a worldview incompatible with a modernizing France. Nevertheless, Moreau does succeed in creating an original artwork unique within the Neoclassical and Romantic tradition.
Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra depicts a Classical male figure, Hercules, in the left portion of the work standing and addressing a massive Hydra with his head turned in profile but body facing the viewer. The Hydra, a massive multi-headed snake, is a popular figure from Classical mythology but adapted for this scene to have the body of a snake rather than a dog as is more common. The Hydra has seven heads, all facing Hercules, and three are baring their fangs. On the ground, a gruesome scene of bodies, skulls, and ambiguous rot litter the landscape. The dead figures are carefully painted in the Classical tradition, with exceptional attention to detail in the bodily form despite their decay. Some of the dead have a look of despair, painted with highly expressive faces and gaping mouths. In the bottom center, slightly closer to the Hydra, one body stands out with lighter pigments giving it a luminescent quality. This body is that of Iolas, Hercules’ nephew who accompanied Hercules in the mythological story of Hercules’ twelve labors. It is unclear whether Iolas is meant to be dead. In most versions of the myth, Iolas was simply knocked down and that was how Hercules discovered the Hydra. However, here it is difficult not to draw parallels to the ragged bodies surrounding the scene. All three of these figures, Hercules, the Hydra, and Iolas, are the brightest parts of the artwork. Besides some reds dispersed through the work, the canvass is dark and earth toned. The contrast between the lights and darks and between the smooth classical forms and ragged bodies and landscapes enhance the subject matter of the painting.
Gustave Moreau was known for being a master of symbolism. Allegory and metaphor in painting were no stranger to him, and this painting is no exception. At the time Moreau painted Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, France had just faced a devastating defeat at war with Germany. At the same time, socialist and anarchist groups were gaining power in Europe and especially France in the Paris Commune. Moreau was vocally anti-socialist. He was known as a reactionary conservative by most and wrote about these beliefs many times. He considered France and society at large to be plagued by socialist impulses and actively advocated for a return to traditional values. He once wrote in 1871, “with a sovereign gesture [France] will for ever shake off this foul vermin
However, as an expert in allegory, Moreau may not have intended for his symbolism to be so clear and evident. Indeed, it is confusing to have Hercules simultaneously represent French society in the fight against Socialism, the German people against the tyranny of France, and any other interpretations. Some scholars suggest that it’s likely Moreau intended this to just be a moralizing painting in general. Moreau’s adherence to Neoclassicism and tendency towards conservative values and moralism suggests this painting is a larger statement about good and evil. To Moreau, good and evil were spiritual absolutes defined clearly in the world, an attitude that could not be said to be common in France at the time. His depiction of Hercules was inspired by the Belvedere Apollo, the Greek Sun god, in the Vatican. By bathing Hercules in light, adorning him with the laurel which is part of Apollo’s iconography, and basing him off this model, Moreau is signaling the absolute purity of the protagonist depicted. In essence, this painting represents the battle between civilization and the dark obstacles that stand in the way of civilization’s moral purity. This is central to Moreau’s reactionary impulse towards the tragedies of society. He saw the “causes of hatred & national rancour” as impulses of evil and darkness. He divorced his analysis of all materialist understanding in contrast to any socialist understanding of the world. Ultimately, where this painting falls short is its failure to move beyond morals to a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of war, tragedy, and human suffering.
Moreau complements every element in this work with an aesthetic harmony which emphasizes the subject matter: contrast between good and evil. Already discussed are the ragged, sinister qualities of the Hydra and the dead bodies. Their dark features and twisting forms insinuate no redeeming qualities. They are purely and unequivocally evil. The cliffs surrounding them give the painting a sinister and imposing setting charged with feelings of ruin and danger. The jagged forms of the rocks and the deep shadows combined with the rubble and overgrowth enhance the sense that this is a place where humans should not tread. The viewer, if they empathize with the subject matter, must be thankful that Hercules is there to take on the labor of fighting the Hydra for us, much like Christians must be thankful that Jesus was crucified for their sins. What is perhaps most troubling about the setting is how Moreau uses the same painterly techniques to paint the bodies as he does the rocky cliffs and overgrowth. In the darker recesses of the setting, there is no clear distinction where the bodies end and the rocks begin. Skulls are the same color as the rocks and this aesthetic mirroring morphs the landscape into a harbinger of death.