This picture relates very closely to the celebrated composition of The Infant Hercules, which the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia commissioned from the artist in 1785, now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (see illustration).
The commission from Empress Catherine, perhaps the greatest patron of the arts of her day, was one of the most prestigious of the artist's career. As a commission for a historical picture with, as the artist mentioned in a letter to the Duke of Rutland on 20 February 1786, 'The size, the subject, and everything else left to me', it also represented a particularly gratfiying challenge. Reynolds himself was fully aware of the tradition that placed history painting at the pinnacle of artistic endeavour, and, indeed, in many of his own most sucessful portraits, in Lawrence's words, 'approached those confines where portrait painting and historical composition meet.'
The artist's eventual choice of subject, taken from Pindar's First Nimean Ode, was not free of controversy. Some critics, including Horace Walpole, felt that such a commission called for a subject from British or Russian history or where the two connected rather than from classical mythology. Reynolds however remained convinced of the superiority of classical history as a source of subject matter. The particular aptness of his allegory for Empress Catherine was explained in a note to Prince Potemkin which accompanied the work when it was delivered to the Imperial Court in 1789: 'J'ai choisi le trait suprenant de la valeur d'Hercules encore enfant, parce que le sujet fait allusion (au moins une allusion éloignée) a la valeur non enfantine mais si connue de l'empire Russe' (see M. Postle, op.cit., p.208).
The Hermitage picture, which Reynolds began in february 1786, was not finished until 1788, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy (no.167). The artist spent a considerable amount of time evolving the composition and when it was complete he admitted that there were as many as 'ten pictures under it, some better, some worse' (J. Northcote, Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1811, II, p.219).
Unlike the Hermitage composition, which is larger, this picture shows only the dynamic figure of the young Hercules strangling the serpents with apparent ease. The other elements of the narrative are not present. As Martin Postle has observed,
'The existence of a separate painting of the individual figure of the Infant Hercules (of which there are several versions), as well as three related pen and ink sketches, suggest that as with Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon Reynolds did not begin by establishing the general framework of his composition but with the single figure of the picture's main protanganist' (M. Postle, op.cit., p.211).
The figure of Hercules was partly based on Reynolds's frame maker William Cribb's son, as well as William Rolfe, son of Edmund Burke's Baillif at Butler's Court, near Beaconsfield. Reynolds's admiration for Rubens is powerfully expressed in this picture, not least in the treatment of Hercules' flesh and foreshortened right leg and in the brilliant highlights of the serpents. Reynolds had visited Brussels and Antwerp in August 1785.
William, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, who purchased this picture from the artist in 1791 for 150 guineas, was not only a friend of the artist but an important patron. He sat for two portraits, first as a boy, in 1764, and then later in 1785. Portraits of his wife, Charlotte, Countess Fitzwilliam, and his son, Lord Milton, later 5th Earl Fitzwilliam, were also commissioned from the artist.