I have always thought that there is a preponderance of abduction and rape scenes in narrative painting. Although some – such as the rape of Europa – have resulted in wonderful works of art, they surely reflect a thoroughly unhealthy attitude among patrons and painters. Many are based on stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which seems to career from one rape to the next – all blamed on the gods, of course.
The story of Nessus, Deianeira, and her husband Heracles is a bit different. For once we can be confident that the rape may have been an intention, but was not committed. What follows is an elaborate tale of post-mortem revenge.
The story of Nessus is an ancient Greek legend told in detail in Sophocles’ play Women of Trachis, slightly differently by Pseudo-Apollodorus in his Bibliotheca, and inevitably in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Nessus was a centaur, part man and part horse, who set himself up as the ferryman on the river Euenos, in western Greece. One day, Deianeira, the beautiful wife of Heracles (Hercules), wanted to cross the river, so she mounted Nessus’ back and he took her across. When he was doing so, he decided to try to abduct and rape her. However, Heracles was on the bank of the river which they had just left, and heard Deianeira’s cries. He drew his bow and shot Nessus in the breast with an arrow whose tip was poisoned with the blood of Hydra.
As Nessus lay dying, in an act of revenge, he told Deianeira that his blood would act as a love charm to ensure that Heracles would be true to her forever, which she foolishly believed. (Classical audiences would have already known that the blood of centaurs was extremely poisonous.) She collected his blood, and kept it ready for use. Some years later, Heracles was having an affair with the young and beautiful Iole. When Deianeira discovered this, she spread Nessus’ blood on a shirt (chiton), which she gave to her husband to wear, in the hope that it would bring him back to her.
When Heracles was away, Deianeira accidentally spilt some of Nessus’ blood on the floor, where it lay smoking in the light of dawn. She realised that Nessus had tricked her, and that his blood would harm Heracles. She sent a messenger to warn him, but that was too late for Heracles, whose body had been horribly burned by the shirt. Heracles took himself out to die a noble death on a pyre of oak branches. Zeus took him to Mount Olympus, where he was acclaimed for his many heroic adventures.
The Point of View
In this article, I am going to focus on the abduction of Deianeira and the death of Nessus, rather than the later story of revenge, as it is the initial scene which has proved the most popular in paintings.
The standard version places Nessus cantering off with the unwilling Deianeira on his back on one side of the river, and Heracles still on the other, shooting his arrow at the centaur. However, therein lies the compositional problem: Nessus would surely be facing away from the river, and there would be some distance between Nessus and Heracles. Yet the latter’s arrow buries itself into the centaur’s breast (chest).
Viewing this scene from the side would require a wide canvas and would lose detail and impact in the figures; viewing it from either party requires careful choice as to which to place in the foreground, and how to maintain Heracles as the hero, rather than Nessus. Each of the possibile compositions brings problems and disadvantages.
This story is shown on several Greek pots, and this Roman fresco from around 50 CE. Although an interesting painting, it seems to show a variant to the story, in which Hercules’ son Hyllus is involved, and a chariot. The artist has also chosen to show the group before Nessus carries Deianeira across the river, thus before the attempted abduction. That seems to be a puzzling choice.
This wonderful woodcut from around 1474 may not have quite grasped what a centaur is, but includes two complete copies of the protagonists in its single frame. Heracles is first seen placing Deianeira onto a horse, then Heracles has shot the horseman. In trying to squeeze these two instants into the image, it runs out of space at the right.
Antonio del Pollaiolo‘s painting from about 1475–80 tries the side-on view, which requires Nessus to be shot while still in the river, which is a slight adjustment to the original story.
Deianeira appears very precariously balanced, and must be grateful that Nessus’ muscular arms save her from being dropped into the river below. The artist also leaves it to the viewer to know that Heracles’ poisoned arrow strikes Nessus rather than Deianeira. This works, although it looks strained and awkward.
Bartholomeus Spranger, in about 1580, painted one of the few accounts timed after the death of Nessus. Heracles has caught his wife up in his arms, and a winged Cupid looks a little puzzled from the top left, as if wondering how his arrow could have killed the centaur. The sequel story, relying on Nessus’ blood, appears to have been lost in the joy of reunion, leaving the viewer confused as to how this fits in with the verbal narrative. But by showing the scene so late, he dodges the compositional problem.
Paolo Veronese‘s painting from about 1586 elects for a much earlier moment, as Heracles is readying his bow and arrow, with Nessus just reaching the opposite bank. He also shows the scene from Heracles’ position, but discovers the problems with that point of view: Nessus and Deianeira are now small, and Nessus is looking away (and his chest concealed), and even Heracles’ face is turned from the viewer. The result makes its hero look like a furtive stalker or assassin.
Guido Reni‘s masterly painting from around 1620, one of the finest of its period in the Louvre, almost fills the canvas with Nessus, who looks worryingly heroic, and Deianeira, who seems to be flying. The small figure of Heracles in the distance is well-lit, but loses the details of bow and arrow. In any case, the arrow could hardly strike Nessus in the chest. Although a wonderful painting, I fear that it does not tell its story particularly well.
This painting is almost certainly not the work of Peter Paul Rubens, but was probably painted in his workshop around the time of Rubens’ death, in 1640. Like Veronese, the artist adopts the point of view from the bank on which Heracles is poised to shoot his arrow into Nessus. By turning the centaur round, to run across the width of the canvas, his face and chest are well exposed, and Heracles’ target is feasible. Even Deianeira appears more comfortable with the force of gravity.
They have added a winged Cupid, to make clear Nessus’ intentions, and Deianeira’s facial expression is marvellously clear in intent. The additional couple, in the right foreground, might be intended to be a ferryman and his friend, who would be superfluous apart from their role in achieving compositional balance.
Although probably not painted by Rubens himself, this is one of the most successful depictions of this story, in narrative terms.
Noël Coypel‘s painting from around 1680 includes more narrative elements than others, but in doing so I fear becomes quite confusing to read. Nessus has been struck, is bleeding, and holding out some cloth which is slightly blood-stained. An arrow lies on the ground in front of him, but none in his chest. Deianeira is still on his back, although his legs have buckled under him, and looks distressed. Approaching them with a heavy club in his right hand is Heracles, perhaps come to finish the centaur off.
To those Coypel adds three winged putti, who seem to be pointing out those clues to the story, and behind them is an old man with a shovel or paddle, who could be a ferryman or gravedigger, and another couple of figures, watching but not apparently part of this story. The artist avoids the difficulty in selecting a point of view by showing a moment later in the story, when the three protagonists form a single group.
In about 1706, Sebastiano Ricci embroidered the story further, showing Heracles, his left hand grasping Nessus’ mouth, about to club the centaur to death, while a slightly bedraggled Deianeira watches in the background. There is no arrow in Nessus’ chest, and Heracles’ quiver is trapped under Nessus’ right foreleg, which seems puzzling. Three other figures of uncertain roles are at the right, and a winged putto hovers overhead, covering its eyes with its right hand.
Although Gaspare Diziani returned to the original story in his painting of about 1730, he fell foul of the same compositional problems as in earlier works.
Nessus is making off with Deianeira as he is crossing the river. He clutches the woman in his arms, which at least allows us to see her face, and the hand calling for assistance, but his face and chest are almost occluded.
Heracles has to stand so close as to almost be able to touch him, so that it is feasible for his arrow, when loosed, to enter the right side of the centaur’s chest, under the armpit. Heracles is looking down at his feet, although drawing back ready to shoot Nessus. Above them an incongruous winged putto forms the apex of a triangle with the other figures. It is also far from clear where Heracles’ arrow will strike.
Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, in 1755, clearly understood the compositional problem. His solution is unfortunately no better, despite his beautiful painting. Nessus, bearing a distressed Deianeira in his arms, has just reached the opposite bank, in the foreground. Heracles is on the left in the distance, and we can at least see his face, bow and arrow. Unlike Reni, he has not lit Heracles to best effect, and there appears to be no way that Heracles’ arrow could impale Nessus’ chest, without first passing through some of the abundant Deianeira.
He also adds a ferryman, who seems to have been knocked over in Nessus’ haste to make off with his captive.
Gustave Moreau‘s final drawing of about 1860, squared up and ready to transfer to canvas for painting, alters the story to make its composition feasible. He puts Nessus in the foreground, with the attendant risk of making him appear the hero, somehow supporting the upstretched body of Deianeira.
In the right distance, Heracles has already loosed the fatal arrow, which is prominently embedded not in the front of Nessus’ chest, but in his back. The centaur’s legs have collapsed under him, and his head and neck are stretched up in the agony of death. This works, although it does have the one significant deviation from the verbal account.
Moreau‘s eventual painting of Nessus and Deianeira, in 1872, was titled Autumn (Deianeira), and quite different from that drawing. Deianeira and Nessus are in very similar postures, although reversed onto the opposite bank of the river, with Nessus still very much alive, and Deianeira apparently in a trance-like state. Heracles may be lurking in the dense wood around them, but for the moment I cannot see him. This makes the viewer wonder whether this was an abduction or a seduction, which is contrary to the original story.
Jules Élie Delaunay‘s brilliant depiction of 1870 largely follows Moreau’s first composition, spaced better in landscape format. Sadly, I cannot show this work, but you can view it here. As with Moreau’s drawing, this alters the story so that Heracles’ arrow impales Nessus in the back, but Delaunay has achieved a better, if more gruesome, compromise with the head of the arrow standing proud from Nessus’ upper abdomen.
My last example is also the most puzzling: Arnold Böcklin‘s painting from 1898. Nessus is far from part-human, and Deianeira not the beauty that she was claimed to be. As those two wrestle grimly, Heracles has stolen up behind them, and is busy pushing a spear into Nessus’ bulging belly. Blood pours from the wound, but Deianeira seems to be in no position to collect it. This appears to refer to quite a different version of the verbal narrative.
Although the story of Nessus, Deianeira, and Heracles has been painted by many masters of visual narrative, its compositional challenges were not fully resolved until Moreau and Delaunay made a significant change to the story, in the middle of the nineteenth century. This demonstrates one of the common problems when trying to tell a familiar verbal story in visual art: what seems perfectly plausible in words may turn out to be physically impossible, forcing the painter (photographer, etc.) to show something which differs from the original story.