John Vanderbank's drawing demonstrates the practical application of Louis Chéron's teaching at the St Martin's Lane Academy. The scene is an episode in the labours of Hercules; Hercules has descended into the underworld to rescue Prosepina, the wife of Orpheus. Hercules encountered Cerberus, a monster who guarded the entrance, whom Hercules brought back to the world of men. In Vanderbank's drawing, Hercules is in the act of leashing the many headed Cerberus.
Hercules was traditionally depicted as a highly muscular hero, most famously in the fantastical anatomy of the Farnese Hercules, one of the most replicated works of art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Judging by the evidence of a 1729 auction catalogue which included a large collection of Vanderbank's drawings, Vanderbank appears to have drawn the Farnese Hercules in Rome. Indeed, a highly finished drawing of the Farnese Hercules by John Vanderbank signed and dated 1732 formed part of the apparatus of the St Martin’s Lane Academy that was acquired by the Royal Academy in 1768. The subject of Hercules was an opportunity for artists to display their knowledge of anatomy and a rich tradition of artists treating the story of Hercules would have informed Vanderbank's work. Vanderbank would certainly have known the Herculean figure by Domenichino in Jan de Bisschop's Paradigmata Graphices (1671) who is walking to the left with a fire blazing in the background, which Vanderbank's drawing also recalls.
The immediate context for this drawing, though, was the series of the Labours of Hercules begun by Louis Chéron, Vanderbank's partner at the St Martin's Lane Academy, and completed after Chéron's death in 1725 by his former pupil Gerard Vandergucht. In 1729 'six prints of the Labours of Hercules. Design'd and Etched by L.Cheron, and finish'd by B.Picard, G.Vandergucht, &c.' were published. Vandergucht completed the set with six further labours, for which he was receiving subscriptions in 1732. It seems very likely, therefore, that these were designed and engraved between 1729 and 1732, in the same period when Vanderbank made the present drawing. It is impossible to say if Vanderbank's design was intended for Vandergucht's series, or whether he simply made the drawing in the knowledge of it. The loose style of the sheet is typical of Vanderbank's first thoughts for a composition, which he would redraw in a more finished state to guide the engraver. By 1731, the two men were already collaborating over a print of Hercules, for on 1 September 1729 Vanderbank had made a drawing for the allegorical frontispiece to the luxury edition of Cervantes's Don Quixote (1738), the illustrations to which occupied Vanderbank from the early 1720s almost until his death. Vandergucht engraved that design, which depicted Cervantes in the guise of Hercules and which is now in the Morgan Library.
- A Catalogue of the pictures, prints and drawings… begin the entire collection of Mr William Sykes Painter, Deceas’d, 23 January 1729. A unique copy of the catalogue is at the East Riding Record Office, ref DDGR/38/6However, in 1723 Vertue stated that Vanderbank had never been abroad.
- See ed. Robin Simon, The Royal Academy of Arts: History and Collections, New Haven and London, 2018, pp.180-181.
- Country Journal, 29 September 1729.
- British Museum, museum no.1978.U.784.
- For Vanderbank's stages of drawing, see H A Hammelmann, 'John Vanderbank's 'Don Quixote'', Master Drawings (Spring 1969), vol 7 no 1, pp.3-15, 65-74.
- The drawing is Morgan Library and Museum, New York, museum no.1975.17:1.