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Analysis of ‘Hercules and Deianira’ by Antonio del Pollaiuolo

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The universal definition of art states that it is “(1) something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings; (2) the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” (Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary, 2020). The beauty of art is controversial to the eyes of others. This can be seen in the Yale Art Gallery, as people naturally congregate to different art pieces. Among the many paintings from 1400 to 1900 CE, one painting that caught my interest was ‘Hercules and Deianira’ by Antonio del Pollaiuolo. The storyline behind the piece that I have chosen, comes from the ancient Greek mythology tale of Deianira, and Greek hero Hercules. According to Joshua J. Mark, a journalist for Ancient History Encyclopedia, “Deianira was the second wife of the Greek hero and demi-god Herakles (better known as Hercules, son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene)” (Mark). The painting ‘Hercules and Deianira’ describes the last moments of their lives. Deianira was abducted by Nessus and tried to force himself upon her. Her lover, Hercules, saw this from afar, and used a poisonous arrow to shoot him. As Nessus was dying, he was able to convince Deianira that his blood would make a powerful love potion. Deianira then sent her lover, Hercules, a cloak soaked in Nessus’s blood. Putting it on, Hercules instantly became poisoned and died. In remorse to the loss of Hercules, Deianira then took her own life. Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s work on this piece became the most famous Renaissance painting in any American collection.

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Formal Analysis

From my perspective of this painting, it looks like Antonio del Pollaiuolo could have used oil paint to create the master piece at hand. The colors used to formulate the painting, plays off of each other in various ways. When looking at this artwork, my eyes immediately fall towards the center; the center being the background of the portrait. What had captured my attention was the movement of the brushes and how it flows across the panel. From the starting of the ground to the transitioning of the river, it was done in such an abstract way. There was no sense of reality represented on the ground work, but one could identify exactly what was meant to be there. Right away, I was able to pinpoint characters that are being portrayed in this painting. Deianira and Nessus are in the far left, as Hercules is found to be on the right. When looking at Deianira, I was able to recognize the distress and agony in her face, as she wishes to be free from the hold of Nessus. The way her hands and legs are positioned one could acknowledge the discomfort, there is no physical contact from her end; where Nessus is holding on to her from her stomach. Of course, the question of if she had on clothes or not did come tomind. After doing some research of the painting ‘Hercules and Deianira’ it is profound to say that Deianira was being ‘raped’ by Nessus. As he was coming on to Deianira, there is a possibility that her clothes have fallen in the process. But as I continued to look at the painting at hand, I was able to see some type of flow of a fabric across her body. It has appeared to be a see through fabric, and the thought of her clothing being torn had come to mind. Nessus appears to be half human, yet half horse. The correct terminology for that description is ‘centaur’. The name had come about through the Greek mythology, where the upper part of the body (being the head, arms, and torso) were human, while the bottom levels of the body (legs and feet) were in the shape of a horse. The details that were formed were done perfectly. The mascline tone in the upper part of the body is there and shows the strength of the creature. The detailing in the face is clear to read. The expression of lust was all that I could see. How Nessus desperately wanted to have Deianira, and wanted to explore her body is shown in how he is holding on to her. Saving Hercules for last, it is safe to say, that there is a mascline and maturity tone done on his body. The structure of the jaw line, down to the center of his back was painted in such a human, yet cartoonish like way. Hercules is not wearing a short, to the defined lining of his muscles and how he raises the bow is shown in such an alluring way. Pollaiuolo has placed a piece of clothing on his bottom frame that hangs low, allowing the audience to have a preview of his rear end. The posture of Hercules is in a defensive tonality. It appears that he is standing on top of a step like matter, allowing him to have a good position to kill Nessus.

Contextual Analysis

Antonio del Pollaiuolo (January 17, 1429 – February 4, 1498), also known as Antonio di Jacopo Pollaiuolo or Antonio Pollaiuolo, was an Italian painter, sculptor, engraver and goldsmith during the Italian Renaissance. Prior to his work of art, Pollaiuolo was being instructed as a goldsmith and a sculptor in Ghiberti’s workshop. Preceding into his own career, Antonio was well known as the ‘Pollaiuolo Brothers’; where he had worked aside his brother Piero del Pollaiuolo. While working with his brother, together they had “produced myriad works together under a combined signature” (Augustyn). Chelsey Parrott-Sheffer, an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, had more to say on how Pollaiuolo came to be. “The name ‘Pollaiuolo’ was believed to have come about because of their father’s allegiance to having been a poulterer” (Parrott-Sheffer). As time continued, the brothers had created collaborative work that was beginning to be recognized. By the year of 1459, Antonio del Pollaiuolo had opened his own workshop, which allowed him to show his skills as a sculptor and painter. The reputation as one of the most “distinguished engravers of the 15th century” (Augustyn) was there. Antonio Pollaiuolo was acknowledged for his individual works he had done as a draftsman. Pollaiuolo was among the first artists to practice anatomical dissection of the human form.

Works Cited

  1. Mark, Joshua J. ‘Deianira.’ Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 24 Jul 2014. Web. 30 Apr 2020.

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Analysis of ‘Hercules and Deianira’ by Antonio del Pollaiuolo. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
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