How Hercules Lost his Poise: Reason, youth and fellowship in the heroic neoclassical body
As a result of the advent, in the late-mid eighteen-hundreds, of an art history of ancient statuary, Hercules’ heroism underwent a process by which new figures began to compete for prominence in a fluctuating symbolic imaginary of virile rule, autonomy and self-rule. The new ways of accommodating the beholder to heroic force was heralded by accounts of Greek statuary in Winckelmann´s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764). In his insistence on a poetic and aesthetic Greek mindset, and in his portrayal of a society devoted to cultural displays of autonomy, truth-seeking and beauty, Winckelmann evacuated the political purchase of the active and triumphant Herculean warrior, and turned instead on a youthful male heroic ideal, one inseparable from the emblematic ‘suppleness’ and quiet solemnity of the actual adolescent body. This and later accounts turned on ancient statues of young male gods as the new imaginary of the hero, their virility not yet distinct, and their bodies a renewable source of aesthetic interest in Greek liberty. The current contribution considers, first, the contested position occupied by Hercules in accounts of classical statuary such as those of Winckelmann. Second, it examines how the gradual fracturing of Hercules’ grip on virile rule and power, along with the aesthetic treatment given to Greece’s warrior-youths, might go some way towards explaining the problematic image of Hercules in examples of statuary by Alexander Trippel, John Flaxman and Antonio Canova around 1790-1800, as Hercules becomes the protagonist of negative images of dishevelled violence and senseless pain.
The Exemplary Hercules – chapter 13