RUBENS, Peter Paul
(b. 1577, Siegen, d. 1640, Antwerpen)

Hero and Leander

c. 1605
Oil on canvas, 128 x 217 cm
Gemaldegalerie, Dresden

The subject of the painting is a legend according to which Leander, a youth of Abydos, a town on the Asian shore of the Hellespont, used to swim across the waters at night to Sestos on the opposite side to meet his lover Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite. She would guide him by holding up a lighted torch. One stormy night Leander was drowned. Hero in despair threw herself into the sea. The story is related in this form by the Greek poet Musaeus (4th-5th century A.D.). Ovid (Heroides, 18, 19) tells of the lovers, omitting their death. The theme is found in Italian and Netherlandish painting, especially of the 17th century which depicts Leander swimming the Hellespont towards a distant tower lighted by Hero; or the drowned Leander is borne away by Nereids as Hero plunges to her death into the sea.

Rubens gives additional intensity to the story by combining consecutive events to produce one highly dramatic scene: the death of Leander, the way his pale, lifeless body is accompanied by thirteen nereids through the churning waves, and finally Hero's plunge into the depth. The subject of Rubens's composition is, in fact, the human body in extremes of movements.

The Hero and Leander was painted during Rubens's second stay at the court of Mantua, where he worked from the middle of 1604 until the end of 1605 for Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. It belongs to a group of at least five paintings that were evidently painted at this time for the free market, without any definite client. The common feature of these works lies in their portrayal of historical scenes with large number of figures, which allowed Rubens to depict powerfully moving bodies in extreme perspectives. The works show the influence on the young Rubens of Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and also in the particular case of Hero and Leander of Leonardo and Tintoretto.

There is a smaller version of this painting in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.