Deianeira and the Centaur Nessus

Guido Reni

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 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. 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.


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