A Masterpiece by Antonio Canova

By Phin Upham
Hercules Firing Arrows at his Children by Antonio Canova (1757-1822)
Antonio Canova’s painting “Hercules Firing Arrows at His Children,” is a captivating and beautiful piece of art. It is a masterpiece because it conveys emotion and because of its subtle use of detail to convey meaning. Completed in 1799, the painting is 42 X 66 cm and painted with oil on paper and glued to canvas. The artwork captures the story of Hercules’ horrible madness. In the legend, Hercules is driven mad by alcohol and the goddess Hera. His madness causes him to slaughter his family. Once sober he is stunned and distraught by what he had done and he agrees to twelve labors in order to atone for his crime.

Brutal and affective, the painting depicts the moment of his madness frozen in time. Illuminated by light, the mighty Hercules is featured in the left foreground of the piece with a bow in his hand. Both madness and wrath can be seen in his face. Unlike Hercules’ figure which is doused in light, the other figures in the painting appear darker and ghostly. The source of light seems to be coming from Hercules, as if his anger was coming through as light. A woman carrying a child seems to be begging him to reconsider while other children cower in the room. A small child is wrapped around his right leg; it could be his son. Although subtle, the use of color is expressive and suggestive. These elements come together to reveal devastating madness and uncontainable calamity.

“Hercules Firing Arrows at His Children” is a powerful specimen of artwork. It reveals just how powerful the medium of painting can be. Brilliant art captures something fundamental about human nature. But it doesn’t have to be expressed in painting alone; it can be conveyed in any medium and with any material. This powerful masterpiece does more than tell its viewers about death, it also tells about life.