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Gustave Moreau: Hercules and the Laernaean Hydra

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The sun either rises or sets in the background. Its brightness is muted by the hazy clouds and the sky, which should be full of brilliant color at sunset or sunrise, is muted. This adds a despairing quality to the painting. Perhaps Moreau intended for the sunrise or sunset to be symbolic of the contrast which is the subject matter of the painting. At once, the sun sets to represent the death and tragedy of the painting, and the sun rises to represent the triumph over evil that viewers familiar with the myth know. Hercules is storied to have killed the Hydra and saved Iolas, which here might even be a symbol of that which needs saving (i.e. society, France, and/or humanity), and yet the choice of which part of the battle to depict suggests the possibility of triumph is not so easily won. Moreau chose to depict the moment before the battle when Hercules and the Hydra consider each other as opponents, sizing each other up. In this moment, it is unclear whether Hercules will truly be triumphant. Even so, the battle has not yet begun, and by the looks of the scene, it will not be easily won. The Hydra is obviously a formidable opponent, having killed so many. In addition, the story of the Hydra is allegorical to a long and arduous battle of not only strength but wits. In fighting a Hydra, cutting off one head only begets two more. The hero to kill the Hydra must not only endure the strength and power of the beast, but also have the wits and intelligence to attack the Hydra at the heart. This complex oeuvre of narrative and formal language shows an immense attention to detail on Moreau’s part. At once he is saying humanity and civilization must endure the tragedies and obstacles it faces, it must stand in the face of evil, it must be pure and virtuous, and it must attack the many forms or ‘heads’ of evil in the world at the root and not individually.

What becomes less clear is what Moreau intends to be the root of human suffering and evil in the world. Saying that Moreau believed that a mere lack of virtue and goodness leads to human tragedy would be irresponsible in describing an artist with such skill in communicating narrative and allegory. Perhaps not the elements of the painting can shed light on this issue as well as the painting as a whole. The work was exhibited in the Salon of 1876; and although it received critical acclaim,[11],[12] it had to contend with a host of realist and avant-garde works that Moreau and other more conservative artists would have considered abominations in the world of art. By exhibiting a Neoclassical and Romantic painting that Moreau intended to be at once “traditional” and “perfectly original” in his own words,[13] Moreau was signaling that a return to tradition and old values was not fruitless and exhausted but instead full of possibility. In some respects, Moreau may have seen himself in Hercules. At the same time, he may have seen himself in Iolas. Hercules stands in front of a barely noticeable dead lion, a common symbol for royalty, and he may have intended to insinuate the monarchy lacks the power to save the people and that it is up to humanity to save itself. To Moreau, society was in the lair of the beast, and either virtue will triumph or be destroyed.

It is difficult to resolve this painting without a spiritualist paradigm to use as a perspective. In a post-modern world, it is very difficult to end the conversation about good and evil at a resolution that posits good must simply triumph, hold onto virtue, and act not only with strength but with wit and moral resolve. Looking back, this painting symbolizes the dying breath of a predominant attitude toward the world divorced from materialism, subjectivity of truth, and moral relativism. The ethos of this painting lies in a dead Classical world and an equally dead Neoclassical impulse. To Moreau, this scenario we inhabit in the 21st Century may represent the death of Hercules and the absolute decay of society. The beauty, skill, and craft of Moreau’s work is in a way knocked on the floor like Iolas by history, not dead, but relegated to a state of inadequacy to have any agency in the world.



“Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, c. 1876.” by Gustave Moreau, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 26, no. 1, 2000, pp. 76–96.

Cook, Peter. Gustave Moreau: history painting, spirituality and symbolism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Kaplan, Julius. The Art of Gustave Moreau: theory, style, and content. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press. 1982.

Gordon, Rae Beth. “Aboli Bibelot? The Influence of the Decorative Arts on Stéphane Mallarmé and Gustave Moreau.” Art Journal, vol. 45, no. 2, 1985, pp. 105–112.



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