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Hercules Slaying the Hydra of Lerna

Pierre Puget

(1620 - 1694) | 884.12.1

Date : 1659-1660 | Medium : Stone

Carved for Château du Vaudreuil circa 1658; transferred to La Londe and smashed during the French Revolution; pieces found buried in 1883; donated by Fr de La Balle, Canon Porée, Gaston Le Breton, 1884

This work had been missing for almost a century when a farmer found the pieces half-buried in a field near Château de La Londe, which had been destroyed in 1793, in the Seine Maritime region. The find was linked to accounts of a work by Puget in nearby Château de Vaudreuil, referred to by 18th century chroniclers and sculptors, and more recently in Suzanne ou la terre normande (‘Suzanne or Norman Country’), a short story by Marquis de Chennevières-Pointel, published in Revue de Rouen in 1848. The château was the property of Claude de Girardin, Secretary of State for Languedoc, and friend of powerful Superintendant Nicolas Fouquet. Puget had indeed produced two sculptures for the château entrance, Hercules Slaying the Hydra of Lerna and Ceres Crowning Janus. Hercules was seized by Lord de Lalonde during the French Revolution, while the more fragile second group had already eroded.

The Château de Vaudreuil groups were Puget’s first independent sculptures. He had previously demonstrated prowess in the atlantes of the Hôtel de Ville in Toulon (1656-57), and travelled to Italy to hone his art in Florence and Genoa. His Hercules, chest thrust forth, exhibits the solid quality of an atlante. The hero relentlessly strikes from the shoulder with the force of concentrated fury, sending his lion skin a-spin, to deliver the fatal blow to the convulsed hydra. Michelangelo’s teachings and Baroque-era violence are interpreted with classical discipline.

In the intellectual climate of the Louis XIV period, Hercules was the ultimate symbol of virtue: the pulpit of the church of Sainte-Foy la Neuve, erected in 1660, also stands on the shoulders of a Hercules slaying the hydra. He stands guard at the entrance of Château du Vaudreuil alongside Ceres Crowning Janus: their juxtaposition shows that the hero who vanquishes evil garners the rewards of peace. As an ally of Fouquet, Puget would have been well aware that Hercules, the sun hero of many virtues, was also a traditional symbol of the king.