This painting is based on a story from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When Hercules arrived at the River Euenus with his bride Dejanira, the centaur Nessus offered to carry her across the water while Hercules swam. Having reached the other side, Nessus attempted to run off with Dejanira, but Hercules shot and fatally wounded him with a poisoned arrow. Vowing not to die unavenged, Nessus gave his blood-soaked tunic to Dejanira and told her that it had the power to revive waning love. Later, Dejanira caused Hercules' death by giving him the poisoned tunic to wear because she feared that he would fall in love with someone else.
Louis de Boullogne was one of the most important decorators of his generation, participating in many of the most prestigious religious and mythological projects of his day. The size of this picture suggests that it may have originally formed part of a decorative series of paintings depicting subjects derived from the Metamorphoses, but this is uncertain.
The myth of Nessus and Dejanira is told by a number of ancient authors, but the version that Louis de Boullogne probably knew was the account in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was translated into French by about 1700.
When Hercules arrived at the River Euenus with his bride Dejanira, the centaur Nessus offered to carry her across the water while Hercules swam. Having reached the other side of the river, Nessus attempted to run off with Dejanira but Hercules vowed to overtake him, if not on foot, then with a poisoned arrow from his bow. The arrow pierced straight through the fleeing centaur. Nessus tore the arrow from his breast and, vowing not to die unavenged, gave his blood-soaked tunic to Dejanira, telling her that it had the power to revive waning love. In a later episode, Dejanira caused Hercules‘ death by giving him the poisoned tunic to wear because she feared he would fall in love with someone else.
This picture shows the moment Nessus presents Dejanira with his poisoned tunic, which is only lightly smeared with blood. Hercules holds out his hand to Dejanira, who appeals to him for help, while a river god reclines with an overturned urn beside the water.
Boullogne may have had in mind Guido Reni’s version of the subject (Louvre, Paris) when composing his own work, but he did not replicate the drama, movement or emotion of Reni’s painting. He was probably also inspired by Noël Coypel’s Nessus and Dejanira (Musée National, Versailles), painted for the French king and first exhibited at the 1699 Salon. The poses of Boullogne’s figures are quite similar to those in Coypel’s painting, although they display more restrained emotions.The front legs of the centaur in Boullogne’s painting are similar to those of the fallen horse in his Conversion of Saint Paul (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Troyes), signed and dated 1705, which makes it likely that this painting probably dates from around 1700.
Boullogne was one of the most important decorative painters of his generation, participating in many of the most prestigious religious and mythological commissions of his day. He was appointed Premier Peintre du Roi (’First Painter to the King') in 1725. The size of Nessus and Dejanira suggests that it may have originally formed part of a decorative series of paintings depicting subjects from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but this is uncertain. A posthumous inventory dated 29 July 1717 records that Achille (IV) Harlay, count of Beaumont, owned several paintings by Boullogne depicting subjects from the Metamorphoses fitted into wood panelling, but the subjects are not identified and we are unsure whether the National Gallery’s painting was one of them.
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