Like the Fates, in some of the classical cosmogonies the Hesperides are daughters of Nyx, primordial goddess of the night. This is by no means agreed, and some claim that they were the issue of Atlas and Hesperis, or Hesperus. Neither is there agreement over their number, which ranges between three and seven. Boccaccio names three as Aegle, Arethusa and Hesperthusa, but there are many alternatives.
There does seem to be agreement on one salient fact about them: they live in a garden somewhere ‘in the west’, where they tend Hera’s orchard which grows golden apples. It was one of these apples which Eris, goddess of Discord, made the prize for the Judgement of Paris, so leading to the Trojan War. Eris proved something of an understatement.
My earliest ‘modern’ painting of what may be the Hesperides is by Raphael, and is normally taken to show The Three Graces (c 1502-03), but they are strangely each holding a golden apple. Those could just be a reward for each virtue, but might refer to the fruit of Hera’s orchard. It appears that these golden apples were added at a late stage in the painting, which increases the uncertainty over Raphael’s intention.
Curiously, Cornelis van Haarlem’s painting of The Hesperides Filling the Cornucopia from 1622 makes no reference to golden apples, but to filling the Horn of Plenty with a wide range of fruit and other produce. I’m not sure how this came about, nor the artist’s literary reference.
Edward Burne-Jones’ The Garden of the Hesperides from 1869-73 is more in accord with the consensus view: three classical maidens holding hands as they dance around an apple tree whose fruit is potentially golden in colour. That is until you notice the blue serpent coiled around the trunk of that tree. That’s a reference to Ladon, the additional guardian placed in the garden by Hera, although that’s more usually considered to be a dragon with a hundred heads. Here it might also allude to the Garden of Eden.
References are no more obvious in Hans von Marées’ triptych The Hesperides from 1884. Its central panel reads clearly, but to the left two young men appear to be picking the apples, and to the right a much older man is there with some small children.
Frederic, Lord Leighton followed Burne-Jones in incorporating an enormous python in his Garden of the Hesperides from about 1892. There are also two white egrets in the foreground, at the feet of the three languid young women.
Albert Herter’s golden apples look truly metallic in his Garden of the Hesperides from 1898, with another hefty snake coiling its way around the three women as they slumber.
Paintings showing Eris visiting the Hesperides are more unusual.
JMW Turner’s The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806) is the only example that I have seen. This shows Eris as an older woman, dressed in a red skirt, in the centre foreground. She is choosing between two golden apples which have just been picked from the surrounding garden by the Hesperides.
The other well-known myth about the Hesperides is that of the eleventh labour of Heracles (Hercules), in which the hero tricks Atlas into stealing some apples from the garden. While Atlas is busy doing that, Heracles takes on the giant’s role by holding up the heavens.
John Singer Sargent’s Atlas and the Hesperides, painted at the end of his life in about 1922-25, shows the giant still carrying the heavens on his shoulders, as seven naked Hesperides sleep on the ground around him.
Alessandro Allori’s fresco, in the Medici Villa in Poggio a Caiano, shows Heracles at the lower left of The Garden of the Hesperides (1578-82). Below the inscribed motto Virtutem fortuna sequetur, or luck follows virtue, are seven Hesperides brandishing their golden apples.
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s workshop painted Hercules Steals the Apples of the Hesperides after 1537, mixing several different myths into one. Here it is Heracles himself who is picking golden apples, as the three Hesperides look on passively. Ladon is laid out in the foreground, with plenty of heads and eyes, instead of being a snake. Behind the figures are three sheep, which appear in alternative myths about the Hesperides. Indeed, Boccaccio’s account concludes that the Hesperides were the owners of sheep rather than guardians of golden apples.
The last of my paintings of the Hesperides as such, Giuseppe Nicola Nasini’s undated fresco in the Biblioteca Moreniana in Florence of Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides also brings together fragments of several myths. Heracles is in the centre, surrounded by seven Hesperides. In the sky is Pegasus, the winged horse, a flying god accompanied by an owl, and in the foreground a couple of Muses serenading them all.
The Hesperides are nominally associated with Hesperus, the Evening Star, who appears in Evelyn De Morgan’s painting of Phosphorus and Hesperus from 1881.
Phosphorus, in its original Greek Φωσφόρος, is the morning star, normally taken to mean the planet Venus when it is bright in the dawn sky. In Latin, it became Lucifer, the bringer of light, and with later associations the devil too. Hesperus, or Ἓσπερος, is the evening star, which is the planet Venus seen bright in the evening sky, beconming Vesper in Latin. Although the Greeks came to realise that they were the same celestial body, they maintained the different legendary figures.
De Morgan shows Phosphorus rising, his torch held up in the air, while the intertwined Hesperus has fallen asleep, and his torch has dropped to the ground, its flame guttering. Between them came Nyx, the Night.