1471 – Nuremberg – 1528
Hercules ca. 1498
engraving; 324 x 223 mm (12 3/4 x 8 3/4 inches)
Bartsch 73; Meder 63 second (final) state, before the scratch on the right calf of Hercules b (Meder lists further editions with the scratch from a to f); Schoch/Mende/Scherbaum 22
small jug (Meder 158; dated ca. 1525)
P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London (their stock nos. in pencil verso C3437 and C14119)
A richly inked impression, even displaying tonal wiping in some of the darker areas, most notable on the body and shawl of the female nude; trimmed on the plate mark all round; the sheet is untreated with only some faint browning along the left edge.
With this print Dürer revisits the subject of Ercules about two years after he had created the woodcut that bears this title on a small cartellino (Meder 238) The engraving is not titled but scholarship has generally followed Panofsky’s identification of this somewhat mysterious image. Some scholars saw it as an allegory of jealously or cuckoldry while others believed that it was the print referred to in the artist’s Netherlandish Diary as “Der Hercules.” Panofsky noted that while “The title ‘Der Hercules’ proved puzzling rather than helpful so long as one attempted to identify the subject of the engraving with one of the hero’s recognized ‘labors.’ It represents, however, not an act of physical bravery but a moral dilemma. According to a parable first recorded by Xenophon, the youthful Hercules, not yet resolved about his future, encountered two attractive and eloquent though very different ladies. One of these, Pleasure, lasciviously dressed and carefully made up, tries to lure him into a life of luxury and self-indulgence; the other, Virtue, simple and honest, described the moral satisfaction to be gained by hardships and gallantry. Hercules, of course, decided for Virtue, and forth he went to kill his first lion” (Dürer, vol. 1, pp. 73–74). (Panofsky’s “of course” inevitably tells us as much about the sexual mores of 1945 as it does the Hercules story).
Yet inconsistencies remain: Why does the hero not wear the lion’s skin that is one of his most recognizable attributes? Does his fantastic headgear have any disguised symbolic meaning? Why does Hercules, who will choose virtue over vice, defend the latter against the strike that chaste virtue is about to unleash? It is equally plausible, therefore, that what we see is not a neat illustration of one or many classical parables unearthed by iconological detective work. Instead Dürer might have created a pasticcio of pathos figures against which the learned humanistic viewer could test his knowledge of the classical literary tradition.
Incidentally, such a more open interpretation of the image’s contents would run parallel to its long-acknowledged formal characteristics, mainly the combination of motifs that derive from a variety of different recognizable sources that, taken together, display a certain lack of coherence. It was again Panofsky who noted that, in addition to demonstrating his artistic command of the classical nude, the Hercules “sums up the results of Dürer’s Italian experiences. … The militant lady with the club, the terrified putto and the group of trees in the center are taken over from the Death of Orpheus [drawing of 1494, Hamburg; Winkler 58]; the arm of the Satyr and the naked girl on his lap from the copy of Mantegna’s Battle of the Sea Gods [drawings from the same year, Vienna; Winkler 60]; and the hero himself from the Abduction after Pollaiuolo [of 1495, Bayonne; Winkler 82]” (ibid., p. 73). Despite its composite character the composition nonetheless demonstrates the artist’s mastery of the medium of engraving. With the most nuanced and subtle shading he defines bodily contours and deftly describes the textures of drapery and foliage. Indeed, Levenson observes that “from a technical standpoint this enigmatic composition is the most impressive of Dürer’s engravings of the 1490s” (Dürer in America, p. 122, cat. 16).