About This Artwork

Gustave Moreau
French, 1826-1898

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, 1875/76

Oil on canvas
70 9/16 x 60 5/8 in. (179.3 x 154 cm)
Inscribed at lower left: Gustave Moreau

Gift of Mrs. Eugene A. Davidson, 1964.231

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.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Paris, Salon,1876, cat. 1505.

Paris, Exposition Universelle Internationale, 1878, Groupe I, Classe I, cat. 656.

Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Gustave Moreau, 1906, cat. 75.

Lawrence University of Kansas, Profiles and Perspectives in 19th Century French Art, January 14-February 26, 1958, cat. 18.

New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Odilon Redon-Gustave Moreau-Rodolphe Bresdin, December 4, 1961-February 4, 1962, cat. 178 (ill.), traveled to The Art Institute of Chicago, March 2-April 15, 1962.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Past Rediscovered: French 19th Century Painting, July 1-September, 1969, cat. 62.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gustave Moreau, July 23-September 1, 1974, cat. 50 (ill.), traveled to San Francisco, Palace of the Legion of Honor, September 14-November 11, 1974.

Kunsthaus Zürich, Gustave Moreau Symboliste, March 14-May 25, 1986, cat. 45 (ill.).

Florence, Palzzo Vecchio, Gustave Moreau, 1826-1898, 1989, cat. 22 (ill.), traveled to Ferrara, Galleria civica d’Arte moderna, Palazzo dei diamanti, 1989.

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.

Publication History

Albert Merat, Le Petit Salon (Paris, 1876), p. 18

Victor de Swarte, Lettres sur le Salon de 1876 (Paris, 1876), p. 79.

Georges Dufour, Le Grand Art et le Petit Art au Salon de 1876 (Amiens, 1876), p. 24.

Mario Proth, Voyage au Pays des peintres-Salon 1876 (1876), p. 123.

Emile Bergérat, Les Chefs d’Oeuvre d’art á l’exposition universelle de 1878, pp. 156-157.

Charles L. Duval, Les Beaux Arts á l’exposition universelle de 1878 (Paris, 1878), p. 127.

Dubosc de Pesquidoux, L’Art dans les deux mondes, exposition universelle (Paris, 1881), p. 82.

Paul Mantz, L’Art moderne á l’exposition universelle de 1878 (Paris, 1879), p. 31.

Mario Proth, Les Artistes francais á l’ exposition universelle de 1878, p. 56.

Ary Renan, Gustave Moreau (Paris, 1900), p. 88ff, 89 (ill.).

Gustave Larroument, Notice historique sur Gustave Moreau (Paris, 1901), pp. 15, 59.

G. Desvallieres, introduction, L’Oeuvre de Gustave Moreau, Musée National Gustave Moreau (Paris, 1906), no. 12 (ill.).

Leon Deshairs, Gustave Moreau (Paris, 1913), pp. 67-68, pl. 24.

Musée Gustave Moreau, Catalgoue Sommaire des Peintures, Dessins, Cartons et Aquarelles Exposés Dans Les Galeries du Musée Gustave Moreau (Paris, 1926), p. 8.

Jacques Lethève, Daily Life of French Artists in teh Nineteenth Century, trans. by Hilary E. Paddon (Washington, 1968), p. 88.

Richard Brettell, French Salon Artists, 1800-1900 (Chicago, 1987), pp. 102 (det. ill.), 103, 104 (ill.), 119.

Christie’s, London, 19th Century Continental Pictures, Watercolors and Drawings, June 16, 1995, under lot 131.

Suzanne Folds McCullagh, “ ‘A Lasting Monument’: The Regenstein Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 26, 1 (2000), p. 13.

Jay A. Clarke, “Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, c. 1876,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 26, 1 (2000), pp. 76-77, cat. 33, fig. 26.

Ownership History

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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