Joseph Mallord William Turner

The ‘Death of Nessus’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink on paper
Support: 143 × 228 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XCIV 14

Catalogue entry

Hercules aims his bow across a river at the centaur Nessus, who is making off with Deianera on his back, as described in Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For Ovid subjects in this sketchbook see note to folio 13 (D05865). In the poem this episode follows closely on Hercules’s combat with Achelous, the subject of 13. Hercules is duped by Nessus, who offers to ferry his bride across the River Euenus. Thinking to show off his strength and courage, Hercules leaps in and swims across, but Nessus steals Deianera and leaves Hercules stranded on the opposite bank, whereupon Hercules kills him with a poisoned arrow. Before expiring, Nessus will give Deianera a cloak soaked in his poisoned blood, which (unaware of its danger) she sends to Hercules by her servant Lichas. Managing first to slay Lichas, as Turner depicts on folio 15 (D05867), Hercules succumbs to the poison himself.

David Blayney Brown
December 2007

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