Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Myth and Majesty: The Humanistic Tradition
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Abduction of Dejanira by Nessus, 1636
Oil on panel, 18.7 x 14 cm (with approximately 2 mm additions on right and left edges)
Ivor Foundation

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

The scene depicts the centaur Nessus's attempted rape of Dejanira, the wife of Hercules, a subject derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses (9.11-126). When Hercules and his wife were stopped by a swollen river, the ferryman Nessus offered to carry them across, but after delivering Dejanira to the opposite bank the centaur attempted to violate her. Hercules thwarted the attack by shooting Nessus with a poisoned arrow. Hercules is not depicted in the present work, but the scowling Dejanira, wearing rose drapery which she holds tightly about her thigh, rides sidesaddle on the centaur's back, her legs tightly crossed to emphasize her rejection of the creature's advances. The bearded Nessus grabs her arm with one hand while placing his other hand on his heart as if declaring his love. Behind them are flourishes of billowing drapery suggesting the speed of the abduction, and beneath the centaur a few rapid strokes intimate the shallows of the riverbank, thus correctly implying that Nessus's assault occurred only as they approached the far bank. As with many of Ovid's tales, the story of Nessus and Dejanira had a cruel twist. As he lay dying, Nessus told Dejanira that his tunic, by then covered with blood, would bring Hercules back to her from any illicit love. When Dejanira subsequently heard of Hercules' tryst with Iole, she sent him the poisoned tunic, unwittingly causing his death...

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