Date of Creation:
Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation
State Hermitage Museum
State Hermitage Museum
In this specific scene, Reynolds painted Hercules as a baby in his cradle fighting off the two snakes sent by Hera, Zeus' wife who was jealous of the infant.
Zeus had proven himself unfaithful numerous times unto Hera and she decided to take her revenge by killing his latest illegitimate child by the mortal Queen Alcmena. She sent two serpents to the sleeping baby, but the event only showed the child's earliest traces of heroic power.
Hera did not stop there to get her vengeance on the boy, especially as Hercules' mother named him after Hera, a name meaning "Gift of the Goddess Hera". After he had grown up and had a family, Hera stirred such furious emotion in Hercules that he murdered his wife, Megara, and their two children.
Realizing what he had done, he went to Apollo, the God of the sun and prophecy, and there he was given 12 labors. But seeing as Hercules was a demi-God and a good person, he was to be immortal and live with the Gods when he left earth.
The subject matter of this work is taken from mythology, of a theme that was visited and revisited in ancient Greece and Rome, that of the Gods and Hercules in a delicate interplay.
Reynolds also drew a great deal of inspiration from the Baroque era and its aesthetics as he, too, experimented with various ways of creating and mixing paints. He relied a great deal on the chiaroscuro techniques of both Rembrandt and Caravaggio and analyzed the different lighting approaches to create mood and composition, which are particularly evident in The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents in his Cradle.
The viewing process takes on a circular motion, as we are directed constantly to the infant in the center.
Reynolds uses black and grey and with various aspects of darker brown to create the deepening shadow for the dimension and drama of the scene as he uses chiaroscuro extensively in this work.
Stark white is utilized when he looks to create clear outlines for the characters in the busy scene as well as creating visual harmony in the work. Yellow is the primary color and works to harmonize the colors to reassert the golden presence of the baby.
Much of the painting's dimension and depth is created by Reynolds' vigorous use of chiaroscuro. The play between light and shadow is very intricate, and the artist has achieved a perfect harmony with every aspect in proportion to another, without jeopardizing the spatial planes in the overcrowded image.
Two light sources are created; the first emanates from the top right hand corner behind the viewer that falls directly upon the infant Hercules, while a second light source streams in from the same direction, however farther into the image.
In the center of the composition, for the ornamental crib and for the baby, as well as the hair and accessories of the surrounding characters, there is great attention to detail as Reynolds' used a fine brush.
He smoothly applies various different colors and tones above the first layers so it does not set too thickly upon the canvas.
Reynolds uses broader and bolder strokes for the ominous clouds to the top of the work, and lets the paint thin on the canvas to convey the dissipating ends of the clouds that created a more menacing effect.
The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents in his Cradle Analysis
Works by other artists:
Pompeiian Wall, Hercules Strangling Serpents
Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers
Reynolds went on to found the Royal Academy of Arts and was later elected President. He gave a series of successful lectures that were taken as quite perceptive for their time.
Works such as The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents in his Cradle have cemented his place in history amongst the critics of his own time, up to modern times as well.
Reynolds fused the styles of the Italian Renaissance and the fashions of his time to forge a new and extravagant painting style that took Europe by storm. His biggest inspiration came from his time spent in Italy where he noted all the great masters and learned about their compositional, chiaroscuro and coloring technicalities. Such knowledge impacted on his artistic career for the rest of his life.
Reynolds completed over 3000 works of art, including a few preliminary sketches which were very rare as he wasn't a keen draughtsman. He' worked every hour he could, including Sundays, from morning to night. Even after his mild stroke and the deterioration of the sight in his left eye, he endeavored to discover new dimensions to the art of painting.
Painting was his passion, until the end of his career and life and because of this he has been dubbed the father of British painting.
It primarily stemmed from the architecture and furniture style that was popular amongst the bourgeois and new rising wealthy class in France who wanted works that reinforced their wealth and pleasure in all their beauty and splendor.
The Rococo style soon caught on in England as the country had a huge rise in middle class and wealthy merchant businessmen due to its advances and control over new colonies in the West, South and East. Reynolds was able to serve the needs of this growing middle class with his flattering and elegant portraiture style.
The Rococo era was characterized by hedonistic freedom and a pursuit of all things aesthetically pleasurable. The Palace of Versailles was the ideal in decadent Rococo art and architecture with its ornate decoration and grandeur.
During the Rococo era portraiture was extremely across the world but particularly in Great Britain where pioneers of this style also include William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough.
Reynolds helped to define different concepts, not only in British painting, but across the Western world. He was a renowned intellectual who socialized in the elite social circles of London and received most recognition for his portraits, particularly of the London elite.
His popularity was due to his ability to raise the figureheads of the day to a mythological level, which flattered the subject.
For further information about Reynolds and his works please refer to the following list of recommended books.
• Farington, Joseph & Postle, Martin. Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Pallas Athene, 2005
• McIntyre, Ian. Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of the First President of the Royal Academy. Allen Lane, 2003
• Reynolds, Joshua & Roberts, Keith. Joshua Reynolds. Bastei, 1968
• Reynolds, Joshua, Russell, Francis, Roberts, Keith & McIntyre, Ian. Joshua Reynolds. Purnell, 1966
• Reynolds, Joshua. Seven Discourses on Art. Kessinger Publishing, 2004
• Reynolds, Joshua & Wark, Robert R. Discourses on Art. Edition: illustrated, reprint. Huntington Library, 1959
• Wendorf, Richard. Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society. Edition: illustrated. Harvard University Press, 1996
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