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Work Deianeira and the Centaur Nessus

Department of Paintings: Italian painting

Nessus Abducting Deianeira

© 1997 RMN / Gérard Blot

Italian painting

Agnès Alfandari

According to Ovid (Metamorphoses IX,101-134), Hercules marries Deianeira after wrestling the river-god Achelous for her hand. Later, during the couple's travels, Hercules entrusts his bride to the centaur Nessus, who offers her passage across the Evenus river. The centaur falls in love with the princess and tries to abduct her, but Hercules shoots him with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the Hydra.

The story of Hercules

The subject of this large painting is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The centaur offers his services to Hercules in transporting his wife Deianeira across a swollen river. But as Nessus moves away into the turbulent water, he tries to abduct the young woman. Hercules detects the ruse and shoots an arrow at the centaur, mortally wounding him.
Here the painter chooses the scene of the abduction; Hercules, alone on the opposite shore in the background on the right, plays a minor role in the composition. All the attention is focused on the taught muscular tension of the centaur's body. His bold, triumphant face contrasts with Deianeira's fright. The positioning of the figures' arms imparts vigor to the scene, accentuated further by the flowing movement of the brilliantly colored drapery of Deianeira's robes.

A synthesis of classicism and baroque

Guido Reni worked for twelve years in Rome before becoming permanently established in Bologna in 1614. In the Eternal City, the painter was influenced by classical statuary and the work of Raphael. The vigorous treatment of the centaur's torso, as well as the anatomical detail, attest to these influences. However, the twisting of the bodies, the exaltation of the gestures and the supple rhythm of the drapery evoke the baroque preoccupation with dynamism.
From the 1620's, the painter leaned toward greater richness of expression, well-represented here in the painting's central figures. The colors - exalted and delicate at the same time - are bathed in a progressively unreal light. Guido Reni offers here a synthesis between classicism and the hues of the Baroque, attaining the level of the greatest artists of the modern era.

To the glory of the duke of Gonzaga

This painting is one of a series of four works based on the life of Hercules, commissioned from Guido Reni in 1617 and completed in 1621. The series was intended to adorn of the rooms of a new palace, the Villa Favorita, which Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga was having built near Mantua. The works were to illustrate the power of the famous Lombard family by way of analogy to the mythical hero's strength and courage. The four paintings met with considerable success. They passed into the collections of King Charles V of England, later to be sold in 1662 to Louis XIV of France. At Versailles they adorned the throne room and the royal apartments.

Technical description

  • Guido RENI (Bologna, 1575 - Bologna, 1642)

    Nessus Abducting Deianeira


  • H. 2.39 m; W. 1.93 m

  • Collection of Louis XIV (acquired in 1662)

    INV. 537

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Grande Galerie
    Room 710, 712, 716

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Additional information about the work

The current frames were commissioned from François-Charles Buteux in 1784