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Le Choix d'Hercule entre le vice et la vertu

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo T. Ollivier

Prints and Drawings
18th century

Grollemund Hélène

The Choice of Hercules is one of the rare drawings whose attribution to Paolo de Matteis is clear and whose date is known. It is a study for the painting commissioned in Naples from de Matteis by the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1712 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). The drawing marks an important stage in the evolution of the artist's style, who freed himself from the tutelage of Luca Giordano and moved away from the orthodox fashions of Neapolitan painting.

Meaning and reason

In a letter dated January 19, 1712, two months after his arrival in Naples, the Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), philosopher and theoretician, complained of being unable to meet a painter worthy of the name. But shortly afterwards he said that he was happy to have found an eminent one, Paolo de Matteis. His accounts book contains mention of a payment for preparatory drawings for the painting to illustrate his treatise entitled A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules according to Prodicus (1713). In this, he held that the decisive element of pictorial creation is in the intellectual conception of the subject, with the intervention of the painter being completely secondary. The subject of the painting-Hercules' choice between the world of appearances and objective values-actually forms the conclusion to the book: "Tis evident however from Reason it-self, as well as from History and Experience, that nothing is more fatal, either to Painting, Architecture, or the other Arts, than this false Relish, which is govern'd rather by what immediately strikes the Sense, than by what consequentially and by reflection pleases the Mind, and satisfies the Thought and Reason."

Hercules between Virtue and Pleasure

Only two drawings are known for this work-a first version in the Louvre and a second, later version sold at auction in 1982. In the initial phase, de Matteis clearly drew inspiration from The Choice of Hercules by Annibale Carracci for the Camerino Farnese: Hercules is seated between Pleasure and Virtue, with his left fist on his temple and his left elbow on his right hand, resting at the end of the club. The lion skin does not cover the nudity of the figure, whose attention is drawn by the discourse of Virtue. The latter, in classical clothing, points at the fortress of Virtue. On the right, the naked figure of Pleasure is partially covered by a mantle. Next to her lie symbols of worldly pleasure-a violin and its bow, a tambourine, a mask, playing cards, and a sheet of music. The drawing shows variants with regard to the painting, testifying to the fact that it was made at the very start of work on the latter. The second study respects the client's intentions more closely.

A turning point in style

The Choice of Hercules marks an important stage in the stylistic evolution of Paolo de Matteis's work. Shaftesbury's vigorous criticism of Giordano's art was one of the reasons for this change. Strengthened by his stay in Paris (1702-5), the artist freed himself little by little from the tutelage of the Neapolitan master. Furthermore, Carlo Maratta sent from Rome a Baptism of Christ dated 1710 intended for the high altar of the Carthusian chapel of San Giovanni in Naples, where de Matteis was to complete the decoration with two side compositions. Responding to the change in taste, to the influence of Carlo Maratta, and to the style he had seen in France, Paolo de Matteis thus developed a delicate, gracious manner that broke with baroque vigor and revealed a new trend toward classicism.


Le dessin à Naples du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle : XXXIXe exposition du cabinet des Dessins,Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1967
Pestilli L. , "Lord Shaftesbury e Paolo de Matteis : Ercole al bivio tra teoria e pratica", in Storia dell'Arte, n 68, 1990, p. 95-121

Technical description

  • Paolo de MATTEIS (Piano del Cilento, 1662-Naples, 1728)

    The Choice of Hercules


  • Pen and brown ink, gray wash with white highlighting on traces of black chalk, blue paper.

    H. 32 cm; L. 44.7 cm

  • Confiscated from "émigrés", placed in the museum in 1796-97.

    INV 9712

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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Additional information about the work

"Paulo de Matheis" in pen at lower right.