January 11, 2021
Hercules and the Hydra
One of the works of art at the Frick that has always captivated me is Hercules and the Hydra. Henry Clay Frick purchased this mid-seventeenth-century bronze by an unidentified French sculptor in 1915. It portrays a story that has been told many times across the ages.
According to Greek mythology, Eurystheus, King of Tiryns, commanded Hercules—the Romanized version of the Greek demigod Heracles—to slay the Lernaean Hydra as the second of Twelve Labors he had to complete to redeem himself for killing his own sons in a fit of madness brought on by the goddess Hera. The stakes were high: Hercules’s reward for performing the labors was immortality and a place alongside the gods on Mount Olympus. Hera created the Hydra—depicted as a seven-headed monster in the Frick sculpture—for the purpose of killing Hercules. She despised him because he was born out of wedlock to a mortal woman and her husband, the god Zeus.
Now, on to the fun part—describing why I am drawn to this work of art! It possesses a warm green-gray-brown patina that seems like it would be smooth to the touch. (I would never dare to feel its surface!) The pronounced musculature of both the demigod and the monster has been rendered with great care, which gives the sculpture a sensual realism and adds drama as well as motion to the powerful battle taking place. Hercules stands over the grotesque creature, his body bending precariously as he builds up the strength to hit it with the club he holds in one hand. Gaping and biting mouths are attached to slender, writhing necks that suggest the moving tentacles of an octopus; the monster’s seven heads are grafted onto a body that resembles that of a reclining lion with large claws. One can only imagine how the dramatic action of the sculpture was enhanced by the flickers of candles or lamplight when viewed during the era in which it was made.
I must admit that my attraction to this piece is tied to American pop culture by way of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. It is a Hollywood mash-up of various Greek myths that would make a scholar of the field cringe. However, what makes it memorable are the extraordinary stop-motion special effects created by Ray Harryhausen, who brought its mythic creatures to life. While Hercules is depicted as a key character in the film, the heroic honor of slaying the Hydra is given to Jason in one of the most outrageous fantasy sequences ever made in cinema.
I look forward to seeing Hercules and the Hydra on display at Frick Madison. In the meantime, I will continue to ponder its meaning, to wonder about the unidentified artist who made it, and to conjure the work in my mind’s eye to marvel at this achievement in bronze sculpture.
Unidentified French sculptor, Hercules and the Hydra, mid-17th century. Bronze, h. 22 3/8 in. (56.8 cm)
Staff Favorites is a series of personal reflections by Frick staff members about works of art in the permanent collection. In January 2021, the Frick—in association with DelMonico Books/D.A.P. New York—published a collection of texts in a similar vein by prominent artists, writers, and other cultural figures, each sharing how a work of art at the museum has moved or inspired them. Titled The Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick, the anthology is made possible by The Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.