Project Handel Hercules
Each season, juniors in the Illustration Department of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design create works of original art in response to a masterwork being performed by H+H that year. H+H Historically Informed Performance Fellow Teresa Neff and an H+H musician work with students to understand the background and composition of the selected work. The students’ works of art are judged by a jury and twelve are selected for display at Symphony Hall during the concert.
Artworks selected by the jury are indicated with an asterisk (*) after the artist's name.
A romantic at heart, the despair in knowing that Dejanira was responsible for the death of Hercules was truly the most moving part of Handel’s Hercules for me. In listening to her lament, I became attached to this vision of a mourning wife clutching the corpse of her beloved and knew I had to illustrate this moment. I decided to approach this piece with the idea of a movie poster in mind and so, much like a poster, I surrounded the doomed couple with key visual elements that I found in the opera; the poisoned cloak, the flames that consume Hercules, and the eagle that soars after his death. Inspired by the work of Alphonse Mucha, the romanticized style is meant to exemplify both Dejanira’s love for Hercules as well as the cruel irony surrounding his death.
For this piece, I was really drawn to the imagery evoked when Hercules is burnt by the cloak. I thought the best way to convey the magical qualities of this was to make the flames an unnatural color.
Acrylic paint, ink on wood panel
I chose to focus on the scene where Hercules is killed by the poisoned cloak. This is the climax of the story when Dejanira’s jealousy takes over and she has to face the awful consequences. It is clearly a moment of incredible pain for both of them, but rather than show a bloody scene I focused on the emotions involved. I am showing them both at their most vulnerable and human. As this demigod is reduced to a pile of melted flesh there is one last moment when they look into each other’s eyes and realize what happened. Hercules dies while Dejanira is left to live with the guilt. Neither fate is necessarily worse than the other.
I chose to illustrate the scene where Dejaneira descends into madness upon realizing that her actions caused the death of her husband. This scene stood out to me when I listened to the score because of the powerful imagery behind her words; her description of the three Furies with the snake and the whip is especially vivid. I chose to render the Furies as though they are forming out of smoke to reach out at Dejaneira, almost as if the force of her anguish summoned them into reality from her imagination. While the Furies are painted with dark purples and blacks, Dejaneira is the opposite, with clothing of yellow and white. The complementary colors represent Dejaneira’s original view of herself as a bright and loving, if not selfish wife, compared to the darkness that she feels upon accidentally killing Hercules.
Hercules is an exciting narrative to express in two dimensions. The story is full of visually rich symbolism and emotional drama that can keep anyone’s imagination forever captured. To translate this, I chose the focal point to be the red chlamys (an ancient-Greek military-issued garment). The garment becomes known as the “blood cloak”. It is the iconic representation of what eventually destroys Hercules and Dejanira. The material is interpreted loosely, detailing some draping to indicate a fabric structure. Textures near the hemline turn to blurs of abstracted blood droplets to foreshadow destruction.
In the background, you’ll see two columns. They represent Hercules and Dejanira. They were both once full of strength. But now, through the course of time, they have crumbled. Hercules destroyed physically, and Dejanira destroyed emotionally.
The lettering (used with the title) references the time the opera was created (1744), while simultaneously paying tribute to the opera as a reinterpretation of the original. The typeface is based on the modern-day Mrs. Eaves (created by type designer Zuzana Licko in 1996) as a modernized improvement to the classic, Baskerville (which is a modernization of Caslon, the most popular typeface of 1744). I wanted to acknowledge not only the time the original story takes place but how it has evolved through the centuries.
Mixed media on wood
My inspiration for this piece came from a lyric in a song by Lana Del Rey. “My rose garden dreams set fire by fiends.” This lyric stuck out to me when I heard the music by Handel and Haydn. It clicked with the story and just fit perfectly on the mood. The leaves that go up Hercules’s head represent fire and at the top, they both diminish into the fire. I went with a cameo style to the figures and kept them stone-like as historic Greek statues were made and as on the carvings on vases. I added music notes as a background which represents the orchestra. As well as a statue of Hercules as a representation. My image and how it was made helped me find my unique style.
For this piece I wanted to do something a little different than what I thought most people would choose. I took the direction of making the shape of the hydra in blood because it was the hydra’s blood that made the arrows poisonous. I got my inspiration to do this particular piece from the little bit of information provided when it talked about the poisoned arrows.
Ink on scratchboard
This project was an opportunity to try a new medium with ink on white scratchboard. The image is inspired by the Greek and Roman sculptures. The linework was influenced by pen and ink masters in the past. I would ask everyone to pay attention to the amount of detail I carefully put into this artwork.
For my piece, I chose to depict Hercules battling the Hydra. Upon listening to selections of Frederic Handel’s oratorio Hercules, I began to reflect on my past research into the twelve labors of Hercules. After killing his wife and children, Hercules prayed to the god Apollo for guidance and was instructed to serve the Mycenaean King, Eurystheus, for 12 years. During this time, Hercules had to complete 12 nearly impossible tasks as a form of penance for his crime; the second of these tasks being to slay the Lernean Hydra. This task proves to be the most commonly known of the twelve labors and shows Hercules’s true strength and courage. For this reason, I decided to draw Hercules standing his ground as the serpentine mass of necks and heads of the Hydra emerging from all angles, ready to strike.
Rococo’s color palette is well known for its abundance of pastel colors, contrasted with dramatic bold phthalo blue/greens from the Baroque period. One particular famous work that came out of the Rococo period was Jean-Honoré Fragonard's The Swing, which influenced the color palette for The Lost Swan. I utilized the pthalo greens to open up the space, drawing attention towards crisp vibrant pinks made of elegant quinacridone reds. Throughout the middle ground lies washes of yellow to brighten the scene. The color was chosen to spark nostalgic and youthful wonder. Much like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, I intend for the painting the transport the audience and reminisce in the beautiful season of Spring.
This scene represents the moment where Hercules wears the poisonous cloak and is killed by the enemy’s substance that it carries. I wanted my illustration to portray the vivid emotions that Hercules felt during his downfall: pain, anger, and confusion.
Acrylic and gouache
When I considered the overall narrative of Handel’s music and the lyrics themselves, I was drawn to the event of Hercules’ death and Dejanira’s spiral into deep sorrow. As much as Hercules is assumed to be the tragic hero of the tale, I felt that Dejanira was a truer victim of intense misfortune, and her sorrow is amplified by Handel’s score. I decided to make a piece that would grant Dejanira a moment to grieve, sympathetic to her pain.
Ink and digital
This piece reflects the moment that Hercules, drenched in the poison of Nessus’ cloak, burns to death upon Mount Oeta. Not only is this moment, the apex of the opera, visually striking, but so are the subsequent events of his wife Dejanira growing delirious with the guilt of causing her husband’s death. The jealousy and remorse conveyed by this powerful, complicated female character conveys the raw, primordial emotions expressed by the age of man regardless of time. I chose to portray this as Dejanira being the mountain upon which Hercules dies as stormy waters swirl around them in a clash of elements. This sequence of events was the one that most touched me because of how potently it presented the human condition and its complexity.
Acrylic, colored pencil on illustration board
Upon reading the story, I found it striking that princess Iolle had little to no say in how she feels about the events that have happened. She was kidnapped against her will and is brought into a situation that she did not create. She however, says one thing that struck me the most: that she wishes she was not royalty so she would not have to go through such troubles. Her grief and sorrow are what I wanted to portray in my image.
The death of Hercules was the most visual moment in the music to me. The way the sharp notes burned through the booming voice of the dying hero, it brought such powerful emotions of hatred, sadness, and celebration. I felt compelled to create each lick of flame in a semblance to confetti and an eagle rising through the flames to show the curse of Hercules’ father who also becomes his savior.
I chose to depict Dejanira as a violin and Hercules as a trumpet because the instruments in my piece help to convey the emotions of these characters. Dejanira has broken strings and frayed bow hairs to show how completely broken she is. Dejanira is seen crying in agony over the loss of Hercules. I felt that Nessus played Dejanira like a violin using her to get back at Hercules and making her miserable in the end. Nessus is seen smiling while holding Dejanira because his evil plan has worked. Hercules is seen with Nessus’ cloak on, melting and inflamed.
Graphite and digital
My piece for Handel and Haydn’s performance of Hercules was inspired by the intensity of the music and the drama of the characters. I wanted the piece to express the intense moment when Hercules wrapped himself in the enchanted cloak given to him by Dejanira, which engulfed him in flames. Dejanira plays the cello, as Hercules is burning from the cloak, his figure and the flames jump from the cello, reflecting the intense music of the event.
After reading Handel’s Hercules, the theme jealousy is what stuck with me the most. I was personally interested in the effect it had on Dejanira’s mental state, as well as a larger theme of fate and prophecies that are present in most Greek tragedies. With that in mind, I set out to create a portrait that can both express the stabbing pains of guilt and jealousy, and draw on my interest in the oracles of Delphi and classical portraits.
Acrylic, micron pens
I chose to focus on the suffering of Dejanira and her grief and rage. In my piece, I wanted to express the feelings she has before and after causing the death of her husband. I posed her in a way more representative of an opera singer than an actress and show her singing her lines while clutching the cloak that runs with blood. As a subtle background, I painted trumpets and violins as a nod to the musicians who bring the piece to life and complete the experience, for without them the intensity and drama of the opera would be lost.
Capturing the drama of the story, and the movement of the music in the image was my primary goal. To do this I tried to create a swooping composition that leads back into itself. I chose to show the moment where Hercules dons the robe and begins to die, and decided to show the giant eagle swooping in to take him and the reaction to the realization of what has just happened.
In the story of Hercules, the devastating death of Hercules was a scene that stood out to me. Hercules’ wife, Dejanira gives him a cloak in hopes of making him love her again but instead, it kills him. The imagery of Hercules being burned alive from the excruciating pain of the powerful toxin that is smeared on the cloak was an impactful and visually appealing scene for me to illustrate. I illustrated Hercules’ death scene from his point of view. I positioned Hercules in a very dramatic pose as I felt the music of Hercules’ was in this scene. The cloak that is killing him is a bright red and is wrapped around Hercules’ neck billowing out around his body, as it is the deadly object that he cannot be freed from. The flames I painted are meant to look like they are engulfing and swallowing Hercules up, symbolizing his feeling of being burned alive. The flames below also include the instruments that are used in the Handel and Haydn Society’s performance of Hercules. With the intense and powerful music of Hercules, I wanted to include instruments in my piece to represent the music that accompanies the story of Hercules.
The composition focuses on the relationship of husband and wife, and the idea of jealousy tearing people apart. Focusing on Dejanira, her character is highlighted in red and is supposed to look as if she is being singed into Hercules. This idea of being burned into him shows the lasting effect the two had on each other. The limited color was a way of highlighting a sense of conflict between the two and a way of isolating such a chaotic situation into a calm synthesized format. The work was made with traditional media ink, and graphite powder, and then colored digitally in photoshop.
I decided to create an illustration based on the exchange between Dejanira and the dying centaur, which was key to Hercules’ downfall. In hindsight, it was never the cloak that killed Hercules. As humans, we tend to blame the external for our shortcomings. However, it is often our innate vices that are responsible for our misfortune. For Dejanira it was her fear and greed that led her to use the cloak to secure Hercules’ loyalty forever, killing him in the process. In my piece, I chose to capture this vulnerable moment of Dejanira holding the bloodied cloak from the dead centaur, her expression deep in confusion at the unexpected gift.
When Hercules returns to Dejanira with the captive Iole. Dejanira becomes consumed with jealousy and rage. This ultimately leads her to inadvertently cause the death of her husband, which in turn drives her to madness. In this piece, I chose to focus on Dejanira during this particular moment of the story, the moment she goes mad with grief. I portrayed her hair as wild and untamed, as if alive and writhing with her emotions, and used the roughness of gouache to help accentuate the mood.
I depicted a fragile, cracked vase to represent Hercules and Dejanira’s story because the shattered pottery conveys the pain and tumult felt by a jealous Dejanira, symbolizing her entire life crashing down around her. Although this opera is entitled “Hercules,” the performance explores Dejanira’s love, suspicion, and grief as her feelings steer the story; this is why Dejanira’s expressions are at the forefront of the piece. As though it is sitting on display in a museum, the vase lives on to tell the lovers’ tragic tale.
For this illustration reflecting the story of Hercules, I chose to represent the hero in a more delicate form after he meets his fate of the firey blanket. A finch represented in artwork can be interpreted as a soul ascending to the heavens, so I chose to depict his final rise to Mount Olympus as a bird. Dejanira is the main focus as she watches Hercules, and she is horrified. Her actions unfold in front of her in regret and guilt. This piece, as an unconventional collage illustration, is the epitome of the pain that is experienced due to the wrongful death of Hercules.
For my illustration, I chose to focus on the moment were Hercules saved Dejanira from the centaur Nessus. In this image, Hercules stands proud above his lover and the defeated centaur, who apparently has one more trick up his sleeve.
While listening to the music, I noticed the lines, “When beauty sorrow’s livery wears,/Our passions take the fair one’s part./Love dips his arrows in her tears,/And sends them pointed to the heart,” sung by Dejanira. I loved the imagery created by these lines and it inspired me to create a painting that evoked this image and emotion, rather than focusing on a particular scene. I focused primarily on the third and fourth lines listed above and put the emphasis on the combination of the tears and the arrows. I chose to make the image reflect a calm sorrow that’s almost peaceful or frozen, instead of maybe a more desperate feeling, since I wanted to include contrast between the arrows inflicting pain and the actions of the figure.
Using a limited color pallet in the acrylic medium, I expressed the pain and suffering that Hercules endured as he burned to death from the cloak his wife had given him.
Grisly endings are common in classical tragedies so Hercules’ demise seems an obvious choice to illustrate. I’ve always been drawn to dark, dramatic themes, not just for the spectacle it creates but the emotional and psychological effect it carries. With the death of Hercules, however, I am not just interested in the abject horror but also the factors leading up to the moment. There is more complexity to the story than a man simply burning and melting away, vivid as the imagery is on its own; it also involves a treacherous centaur and the obsessive jealousy of a wife who later regrets her actions. I want to incorporate all of these elements into a single image. In the picture, two faces of Dejanira are shown, representing the jealousy that drives her to give Hercules the cloak, and her anguish when she realizes her mistake. The flames separate these moments to convey the passing of time and flares up to reveal another scene, one where Nessus dominates, holding the deadly garment over his shoulder.
Rico St. Paul
What many don’t realize is the power and influence the oracle possesses in establishing the entire story of Hercules. From the very beginning, we are given this image of a large aggressive brute demigod falling in line under the wild declarations of a woman constantly under the hallucinatory influences of nature’s vapors and Hercules follows her word to the letter. Everything and every event that the oracle predicted has come true. We begin to wonder, is the whole story just the vision of the oracle playing out before us? I choose to illustrate one of the strongest forces at work within the story, though briefly mentioned, the oracle and her vision.
Gouache, colored pencil
This piece, inspired by Handels’ Hercules, focuses on Dejanira and her unfortunate jealousy. Dejanira was consumed with thoughts of her husband Hercules leaving her for Princess Iole throughout the performance which results in her misguided attempt to win back Hercules’ attention with a magic cloak given to her by one of Hercules’ previous victims, Nessus. Nessus told her that this cloak soaked in his blood would cure Hercules of any infidelity when wore, so she decided to give him the cloak which leads to his downfall. I wanted to have Dejanira in the center of the piece sitting on the ground to show her regret as she stares at the burnt cloak that killed her husband. The green patterned background surrounding her represents Dejanira’s consuming jealousy. The motif has arrows, Hercules’ weapon of choice, and a crown of laurel traditionally wore by Greek royalty.
After reading and listening to this performance of Hercules, my mind could not escape the climactic moments of Hercules’ death. These words painted a vivid picture of Dejanira’s pain and torment as the flames engulfed her beloved Hercules. In my piece, I aim to depict this very moment. The main figure, representing Dejanira, weeps into her palms, while the flames of her husband dance around her. Like many of my works, this piece was completed in acrylic paint. I hope to have done justice to the explosive emotion present in the piece and magnified in its performance.
In this piece, I wanted to show the momentous scene where Dejanira and Hercules make amends, and she gifts Hercules the cursed cloak. This most tragic scene of the libretto is obscured by narration and neither Dejanira nor Hercules exchange dialogue. That left an impression on me, and I was inspired to show that split second of silence where the last evil is unleashed unbeknownst to the protagonists. Hercules’ face is obscured in the shadow of the fire’s glow, an ominous echo of his sealed fate. Stylistically, the figures are illustrated with sharp facets in contrast to the billowing smoke, as if they were stone statues. The image of unmoving statues further symbolizes the halt of the march of time at this moment.
I was absolutely enthralled with the idea that Hercules met his end because of Dejanira’s jealousy. With her judgment clouded by envy she put all her faith into a single garment soaked in Nessus’ blood to magically restore the fidelity of her companion. Hercules is depicted with hubris over his many victories as Dejanira’s ominous hands lower the cloak down on to his life, extinguishing his flame in a most agonizing way. The grapevines, a symbol of fertility and prosperity are dead with rotting grapes at their ends.
While listening to the voice of Dejanira, I realized what a romantic and tragic character she is. Her fate is tied to the violent downfall of Hercules despite her love for him. Rather than seeing her as a character tainted by jealousy, I see her as a victim of manipulation from the centaur that used her as a vehicle for revenge. I painted her in sorrow holding the head of the Nemean lion, a remnant of Hercules. Her powerful regret and angst resonated through her voice. Surrounded by marigolds, a symbol of jealousy, she weeps for her lover that she killed. Through my illustration, I hope to give a deeper look at the character who truly drives the drama of the performance.
“Then fire the kindling heap, that I may mount on wings of flame, to mingle with the gods!” – Accompanied by the intensifying music, as I read this line of the story, multiple imageries were immediately formed in my mind. Hercules, who was met with an unexpected death, screams in agony his last request to be sent off in glory. I wanted to capture his pained journey up to “mingle with the gods,” as he reaches up to be released from such anguish as he suffers a pain that can only be described as being burned alive.