Cornelis van Haarlem's Hercules and Achelous is nothing less than an icon of northern baroque painting-all struggle and movement, Hercules' muscles bulging and lion's mane flying, the action pushed to the very front of the picture plane. The fight between Hercules and the river god Achelous, told in book nine of Ovid's Metamorphoses, took place during the hero's Twelve Labors and from it the cornucopia, a symbol of peace and plenty, emerged. Cornelis depicted the moment of greatest drama, the very height of the struggle just before Hercules pulls the horn from the massive bull's head. The hoof prints in the foreground right record the path of the struggle as Achelous is brought to his knees. This painting, monumental in every way, is the product of one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of Dutch art that began with Karel van Mander's arrival in Haarlem in 1583 and his creation, together with Cornelis van Haarlem and Hendrick Goltzius, of the so-called Haarlem academy.
The story of Hercules and Achelous is not one of the Twelve Labors proper but is one of the secondary episodes, the 'parerga,' that took place during the hero's performance of them. In this episode Hercules and the river god Achelous fight for the affections of Deianeira, the daughter of Oeneus, king of Calydon in Aetolia. Achelous, who began the fight as a man (pictured in the background at the right) changed form twice, first into a snake (seen at the left) and then a bull, in his effort to defeat Hercules.
O'er-match'd in strength, to wiles, and arts I take,
And slip [Hercules'] hold, in form of speckled snake;
Who, when I wreath'd in spires my body round,
Or show'd my forky tongue with hissing sound,
Smiles at my threats: Such foes my cradle knew,
He cries, dire snakes my infant hand o'erthrew
Thus vanquish'd too, a third form still remains,
Chang'd to a bull, my lowing fills the plains.
Strait on the left his nervous arms were thrown
Upon my brindled neck, and tugg'd it down;
Then deep he struck my horn into the sand,
And fell'd my bulk among the dusty land.
Nor yet his fury cool'd; 'twixt rage and scorn,
From my maim'd front he tore the stubborn horn...
(Metamorphoses, IX; trans. John Dryden, 1688)
Nymphs filled Achelous' horn with flowers and fruit as seen in the vignette at the right thus creating the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. While the subject of the fight between Hercules and Achelous is rare, even within the context of ancient art, its result-the cornucopia-appears throughout seventeenth century Netherlandish painting.
This painting is almost certainly the work listed as 'a canvas [representing] Hercules, original [by] Cornelis Cornelisz' in the 1612 sale of the possessions of Claes Rauwert (see P.J.J. van Thiel, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem 1562-1638, 1999, p. 30). Claes had inherited the painting from his father Jacob (c. 1530-1597), one of the wealthiest merchants in Amsterdam who had begun to collect as early as 1546. Jacob actively supported his artist friends, among them Karel van Mander, Marten van Heemskerck and Pieter Aertsen, and was involved in art dealing and perhaps also print publishing for artists such as Hendrick Goltzius (van Thiel, op cit., p. 29).
Fifteen paintings by Cornelis appeared in Rauwert's sale. In addition to Hercules and Achelous, which sold for 103 guilders, The Fall of Lucifer (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen) and The Dragon devouring the Companions of Cadmus(fig.1; National Gallery, London) were also sold, the former obtaining the astounding price of 445 guilders and the latter 75 guilders. Van Mander records both the Lucifer and the Cadmus in Jacob's collection and Cornelis and Goltzius together dedicated the print after Cadmus to Rauwert in friendship, a collaborative work that they described as 'the first fruits of their art' (van Thiel, op cit., p. 29).
It is interesting to note that a single patron owned both the The Dragon devouring the Companions of Cadmus and Hercules and Achelous, two violent Ovidian subjects that required not an insignificant amount of wall space. While it cannot be argued that the two works are pendants (Cadmuswas painted two years earlier and is somewhat smaller, measuring 148.5 x 195.5 cm.) there is no question that they are related aesthetically and thematically. Both compositions are defined by large figures placed in the extreme foreground that are engaged in a violent struggle between man and beast. Both episodes are the result of the love of one of the gods for a mortal and both ultimately end up with fruitful rewards. Cadmus' story, told in Book III of the Metamorphoses, begins with his father sending him to find his sister Europa, who has been abducted by Zeus in the guise of a bull. Cadmus never found Europa but (despite the dragon that devoured his companions) his journey led to the founding of Thebes.
While it is tempting to assume that Rauwert bought such large and dramatic history paintings to resell, they remained in his collection until well after his death and the appearance of such subjects in a domestic setting does have a history. Indeed, van Mander described Frans Floris' now lost series of the labors of Hercules as having been commissioned by the Antwerp merchant Nicolaas Jongelinck for his new house (see C. van de Velde, 'The Labours of Hercules, a lost series of paintings by Frans Floris,' The Burlington Magazine, March 1965, pp. 114ff). The iconography of Floris' series has been preserved by a series of prints by Cornelis Cort. He painted only ten of the twelve labors and included the secondary story of Hercules and Achelous. The paintings were large in scale and varied in their dimensions to accommodate the spatial requirements of a particular room. Like Cornelis, Floris placed the battling Hercules and Achelous at the very front of the picture plane. He also emphasized Hercules' muscular physique and shows him pinning Achelous' head to the ground with a similar move that involves the hero's knee digging into the bull's back. Hercules' body, however, is emphasized in Floris' painting and he appears, barely covered by a flowing drape, in front of the massive bull. A vignette of nymphs holding the cornucopia appear in the background on the left, but in place of the depiction of Achelous in his other forms is a bucolic landscape with a cow. Cornelis almost certainly knew Cort's print after Floris' painting and does seem to have adapted various aspects of the composition.
Each of Hercules' deeds had symbolic meaning in seventeenth-century commentary. Hercules' defeat of Achelous and his dedication of the bull's horn to the goddesses of plenty was seen in Albricus Philosophus' De imaginibus deorum as the hero preventing the river from overflowing the field on its shores thus ensuring plenty for the region. Philosophus' work was almost certainly the source used by Frans Floris for his now lost series. No other paintings on this theme by Cornelis are known though Van Thiel does note that four panels depicting the labors of Hercules appeared on the art market in 1920 and again in 1944. It is unclear whether they were actually by his hand (Van Thiel, op cit., p. 346).
Cornelis' paintings from 1588 to 1592 demonstrate his complete mastery of the human form after years of life studies done with Goltzius and Van Mander. His collaboration with Goltzius in 1588 on a series known as The Four Disgracers, of which only the painting of Ixion survives (fig. 2; Boymans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam), reveals his drive to capture the human form in all its poses and actions. These figures with impossibly muscled bodies in contorted poses as they free-fall would form the basis of his history paintings for the rest of his career. Cornelis painted Hercules and Achelous the same year that he produced both The Massacre of the Innocents (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and Venus at the Forge of Vulcan (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). In 1590 he also received an important commission from the burgomasters of Haarlem to decorate the Prinsenhof with scenes alluding to the Dutch Republic's recent history. He painted a series of four mythological subjects, among them The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis (Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem).