John Singer Sargent's Hercules and the Hydra
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Hercules and the Hydra
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Stairway Side Aisle mural
Near front entrance
Oil on canvas
347.98 x 317.5 cm (137 x 125 in.)
Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912 and Picture Fund 25.647
Jpg: MFA

To kill the Hydra (a multiheaded snake-like-monster with burning venom) was Hercules' second labor - there were twelve labors in all.  

The Hydra was the result of a mating between the monster Typhon and the Echidna, which was a creature that was half snake and half woman. The Hydra was difficult to kill, because when one head was cut off, two more heads grew back out of the stump.  

Hercules was the son of one of Zeus' many mortal lovers. Hercules himself became immortal when Zeus had him suckle from Hera's breast (Zeus' wife) while she slept. Hera later discovered this trick and became enraged by her unfaithful husband and Hercules. She cast a spell on Hercules and he went temporarily mad and killed his own wife and children. In remorse, Hercules consulted the Oracle at Delphi to atone. The sentence was to serve King Eurystheus of Mycenae for twelve years which became the twelve labors.   

The name Hercules in Greek meant "glory of Hera." 

The Hydra is especially significant in that the venom of the snake monster would eventually be the downfall of Hercules. After he had killed the Hydra, he cut the monster's body open and dipped his arrows in the fiery poisonous venom.  

Much later, when he was trying to live happily-ever-after with his new wife, a centaur tried to rape her. Hercules killed it with one of his poisoned arrows, but before he died the centaur tricked his wife into thinking that his poisoned blood was a love potion to keep a lover faithful. So she dipped one of Hercules' shirts in centaur's poisoned blood. Later, when she suspected Hercules might be unfaithful she gave him the shirt. When Hercules put it on, it burned his body to the bone, but he couldn't die since he was immortal. Zeus took pity and sent him to the stars. 

* * * 
John, in effect, as taken the Constellation Hercules, flipped it upsidedown, and painted it.  
July Constellation -- 
American Contenant, Northern Hemisphere,  Summer
Hercules, also called Strong Man or The Kneeling Man
(See Hercules Constellation in Juxtaposition) 

The artist; commissioned by the MFA in 1921 and installed on ceiling side aisle, Huntington Avenue stairway, 1925.

Stairway Ceiling Decorations 
Looking straight up

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Sketch for Hercules and the Hydra - Hercules

Sketch for Hercules and the Hydra - Small Study, Head


By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2005 all rights reserved
Created 4/8/2002