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Choice of Hercules

Nicolas Poussin (Les Andeleys, Normandy 1594 – Rome 1665)

Category

Art / Oil paintings

Date

circa 1636 - circa 1637

Materials

Oil on canvas

Measurements

883 x 718 mm (34 3/4 x 28 1/4 in)

Place of origin

Italy

Order this image

Collection

Stourhead, Wiltshire (Accredited Museum)

NT 732103

Caption

A young naked and beardless Hercules, crowned with a laurel, leans on his club at a crossroad. The two female figures represent Virtue and Vice. Vice, clad in more revealing orange robes is accompanied by Cupid who offers a posy of flowers up to him. She gestures towards an easy path to a beckoning sunny valley below. Whilst Virtue, chastely dressed in white, points to the difficult path, a steep rocky ascent. Hercules looks towards Virtue knowing which he should choose. The moral theme of this allegorical picture is derived from the Greek philosopher, Prodicus, a friend of Socrates and Plato, and told in Xenophon’s Memorabilia (circa 430-354 BC). The presence of the snake on the ground has multiple references. Hercules overcame snakes more than once in his life; it is an attribute of Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom symbolising prudence; and an evil serpent. This is possibly the picture that once belonged to the architect François Blondel (1617–86). It was bought by Henry II Hoare at the posthumous sale of the magnificent builder, collector, and patron, the 1st Duke of Chandos, in 1747.

Summary

Oil painting on canvas, Choice of Hercules by Nicholas Poussin (Les Andelays, Normandy 1594 - Rome 1665), circa 1636-37. Hercules, a demi-god known for his physical strength, young, naked, beardless, and crowned with a wreath of laurel, stands in a rocky landscape in front of a tree between two female figures, or goddesses, representing Vice and Virtue; Kakia and Aretê. He has stopped at a fork in the road to contemplate his future life. He rests his left hand on his club, and his lion skin over his right arm, and looks towards the figure of Virtue who stands on the left, chastely dressed in white and pointing upwards to a rock of extreme and difficult ascent, with a snake ramping on Virtue's (along with the laurel, an attribute of Prudence) path.Yet he would have the opportunity to face each adversity with courage and self-discipline, and of showing wisdom and justice despite great danger. On the right stands Vice clad in more revealing orange silk robes and accompanied by Cupid who offers a posy of flowers up to Hercules. Vice gestures with her left hand, pointing out an easy, pleasurable path to happiness with an idyllic valley below which lies behind them on the right. Needless to say Hercules chooses the correct path to eventual glory as nothing that is really good and admirable is granted without some effort and application.

Provenance

The picture is possibly the one that once belonged to the architect François Blondel (1617-1686); bought by Henry Hoare II (1705-1785) at the sale of the 1st Duke of Chandos (1674 - 1744) in 1747; given to the National Trust along with the house, its grounds, and the rest of contents by Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare, 6th Bt (1865 – 1947) in 1946

Credit line

Stourhead, The Hoare Collection (National Trust)

Makers and roles

Nicolas Poussin (Les Andeleys, Normandy 1594 – Rome 1665), artist

References

Florent Le Comte, 1702, Vol. III, p.32 Félibien 1725 Michiel Félibien, Histoire de la ville de Paris, 1725, p.152 Walpole 1927-28 Paget Toynbee (ed.), 'Horace Walpole's Journals of Visits to Country Seats, etc.', 1760-62, Walpole Society XVI, 1927 -28 pp. 9-80, p.41 Stourhead 1785 Schedule of Pictures left by Henry Hoare at his death, 1785 Colt Hoare 1818 Sir Richard Colt Hoare, A Description of the House and Gardens at Stourhead...with a Catalogue of the Pictures, Salisbury 1800, Bath 1818, rev. 1822, no.17 Hoare 1822 Sir Richard Colt Hoare, History of Modern Wiltshire (Hundred of Mere),1822 , p.78 Smith 1829-42 John Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters, 8 vols and supplement, London, 1829-42, Vol.III, no. 270 Stourhead 1838: Inventory of Heir-Looms at Stourhead directed to be taken by the Will of the late Sir Richard Colt Hoare Bart. with the state and condition thereof, 1838 , no.333 Waagen 1854-7 Gustav Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, 3 vols. (translated by Lady Eastlake) with a supplementary volume: Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain, London, 1854-7, Vol.III, p.172 Andre Andresen, Nicolas Poussin. Verzeichniss der nach seinen Gemälden gefertigten gleichzeitigen und späteren Kupferstiche, etc., 1863, no.397 Stourhead 1898 Alda, Lady Hoare, Catalogue of Principal Paintings & Drawings at Stourhead July 6th 1898 (Ms.typescript), 1898 , p.20 Landscape in French Art, Royal Academy, London, 1949, no.51 Rees-Jones 1960 Stephen Rees-Jones, Notes on radiographs of five pantings by Poussin, The Burlington Magazine, CII, 1960, pp.304 ff Denis Mahon 'Poussin's Early Development, An Alternative Hypothesis', Burlington Magazine CII, 1960, p.303 Nicholas Poussin, Louvre, Paris, 1960, no.49 Waterhouse 1960: Ellis K. Waterhouse, Poussin et l'Angleterre jusqu'en 1744, Actes du Colloque Poussin,1960, Vol.I, p.292 Denis Mahon, 'Poussiniana', Gazette des Beaux Arts, July-August 1962, p. 82 n.241 Anthony Blunt, The Paintings of Nicholas Poussin, A Critical Catalogue, 1966, no.159 L'Ideale Classico del Seicento in Italia, Palazzo dell'Archiginnario, Bologna, 1962, no.60 Masterpieces of Reality: French 17th Century Painting, Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery, 1985, no.25 Stourhead Wiltshire, 1992: List of Pictures, [National Trust; Anthony Mitchell & Alastair Laing] 1992 , p.14 Rinaldo and Armida, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1992, no.9 Nicholas Poussin, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1995 , no.33

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