Nessus and Deianira, 1814
Pencil, pen and ink on paper. 184 x 233 mm
Inventory number: C156
The tales of the life of Herakles (Lat. Hercules) have remained among the most popular myths through the ages, and for Thorvaldsen too they provided favourite motifs. Among Thorvaldsen’s own drawings is this one, of Hercules’ wife Deianira and the centaur Nessos (Lat. Nessus).
The myth says that when Hercules had served his time with the King of Mycenae, where he performed his famous Twelve Labours, he married the princess Deianira. When the newly-weds were on their way to Hercules’ native city, Thebes, the centaur Nessos tried to abduct the bride, but Hercules wounded him fatally with an arrow. The dying Nessus gave Deianira some drops of his blood and said it was a love elixir that would ensure her Hercules’ eternal love. But when Deianira used Nessus’ blood, it turned out to be a poison that slowly and painfully took the life of Hercules.
So died Hercules because of the treachery of Nessos. But rather than being sent to the Underworld, the great hero was admitted among the gods on Olympus. There he was at last reconciled with his stepmother Hera, who gave him the goddess of youth, Hebe, as his wife.
With a surprising sense of drama Thorvaldsen used this motif in a couple of reliefs. The drawing is presumably a pre-study for one of these. According to legend the centaur Nessus had the task of ensuring that Hercules and Deianira made it safely across the river Euenos. But the history takes a violent turn, as Nessus instead abducts Deianira.