Friday, October 21, 2011

“Deianeira and the Dying Centaur Nessus”

“Deianeira and the Dying Centaur Nessus” by Howard Pyle (1887)

Isn’t this picture lovely? I never really gave it much attention before. Howard Pyle painted it in 1887 for A Story of The Golden Age by James Baldwin, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Even the small (3.7 x 4.6"), early halftone reproduction is pretty good. The original is still out there, somewhere, but it almost certainly is black and white watercolor (or ink) on paper and about 10 x 12 inches, give or take an inch or so. It illustrates a passage in which Deianeira, wife of Heracles, says:
I have been thinking of what I can do to keep my husband’s love. I had almost forgotten that I have a charm which will help me, or I might not have been so sadly troubled. Years and years ago, when we were fleeing from my dear old home at Calydon, we came to the river Evenus. The water was very deep, and the current very swift; but there lived on the banks of the stream an old Centaur, named Nessus, whose business it was to ferry travellers across to the other shore. He first took my husband safely over, and then myself and our little son Hyllus. But he was so rude, and withal so savage in his manners, that Heracles was greatly angered at him; and he drew his bow, and shot the brutish fellow with one of his poisoned arrows. Then my woman’s heart was filled with pity for the dying Centaur, wicked though he was; and I felt loath to leave him suffering alone upon the banks of Evenus. And he, seeing me look back, beckoned me to him. “Woman,” he said, “I am dying; but first I would give thee a precious gift. Fill a vial with the blood that flows from this wound, and it shall come to pass that if ever thy husband's affections grow cold, it will serve as a charm to make him love thee as before. It needs only that thou shouldst smear the blood upon a garment, and then cause him to wear the garment so that the heat of the sun or of a fire shall strike upon it.” I quickly filled the vial, as he directed, and hastened to follow my husband.


kev ferrara said...

This is a beautiful composition, but I've always felt like it was one of the few Pyle's that could have been done by another artist of that era. It was in his transition period, sorta like 1923 for Norman Rockwell, when he learned how to do Leyendecker, but hadn't yet found his own mature style.

Ian Schoenherr said...

I (biasedly) doubt that Pyle’s contemporaries could have created such a strong and unusual composition - but I see your point. It was indeed a stylistically transitional period for him. I think he was rock-solid pen-and-ink-wise at this time (1887, when he was also finishing up The Wonder Clock pictures and about to start those for Otto of the Silver Hand), but still feeling his way in his paintings. He made the illustrations for The Rose of Paradise also around the same time - and with the same technique as those for The Golden Age - and there IS a certain tentativeness about them. Then again, it’s a technique that required him to be more careful than he had to be in oil, which might explain why he switched almost entirely over to the latter medium - when painting - in years to come.