Hercules Subduing the Centaurs

Wielding his chalk with characteristic grace and precision, Bouchardon carved out his grappling figures from the shadows of an imagined grotto. At center, the hero Hercules--recognizable by a lion's skin worn around his waist and a knotty club in his grasp--straddles one thrashing centaur and prepares to deal the other a mighty blow. Though this scene is fantastical, the straining human and equine anatomy seems observed firsthand. Bold, decisive contour lines enclose each figure, setting the group apart, in crisp relief, from the rapid red chalk hatch-work of the rugged plinth and alcove. These rocky forms and the overturned jar at right confirm that the drawing represents an unrealized design for a grotto fountain.

The story of Hercules's battle with the centaurs is usually told in the context of his fourth labor. On his way to Mount Erymanthos, Hercules pays a visit to the cave of his friend the centaur Pholus, whom he persuades to open a jar of wine originally given by Bacchus to all the centaurs. Smelling the wine, Pholus's fellow centaurs arrive to discover Hercules drinking from their jar; failing to understand that wine should be mixed with water, they begin to drink it undiluted and then set upon Hercules in anger. He subdues them with poisoned arrows and eventually continues on his way to kill the Erymanthian boar. Curiously, in Bouchardon's rendition of the scene, Hercules wields not a bow and poisoned arrows but his accustomed club. The artist here apparently sacrificed a certain measure of fidelity to the story in favor of a more thrilling and direct confrontation between the hero and his intoxicated foes, tangled together in a mass of muscle and hair. The cave setting of the story made it ideally suited for depiction in a fountain sculpture; in a witty detail devised by Bouchardon, water would have flowed from the centaurs' supposedly undiluted wine jug at right.

Red chalk (about 1735-1740)

by Edme Bouchardon (French, 1698-1762)

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