The Choice of Hercules

ca. 1543–1566Taddeo ZuccaroItalian, 1529–1566pen and brown ink, brown wash, black chalk9 in. × 7 9/16 in. (22.9 cm. × 19.2 cm.)

Bequest of the Honorable James Bowdoin III


What path should I take through life? This question takes the form of two female personifications of Vice and Virtue in Taddeo Zuccaro’s drawing of the famous parable of the Choice of Hercules, long invoked in literature and art as a moral exemplar. A young Hercules sits on a stone to ponder the choice confronting him: should he listen to the reasoned arguments of Virtue or look to the persuasive charms of Vice? A sturdy tree backs up the beardless demi-god, indicating his ultimate choice, while Zuccaro’s lovely, evanescent landscape, evoked in delicate ink wash, mirrors the options: a verdant, yet steep mountain behind Virtue and a skeletonized snag in front of Vice. Like many works in the Bowdoin collection, this depiction of ancient myth is charged with moral lessons for the present. 

In antiquity, Xenophon was the first of many authors to lay out the story. Cicero revived the narrative, and Silus Italicus (ca. 26–ca. 101 CE) devised a version, “The Dream of Scipio,” placing the virtuous warrior Scipio Africanus in place of Hercules. Two admirers of Cicero, the poet Petrarch and his friend the humanist Colucci Saluldi (1331–1406), brought the tale of Hercules’s choice to Renaissance Florence. By the 1500s, Hercules’s judgment appeared in many paintings, most notably in Annibale Carracci’s Hercules at the Crossroads for Cardinal Odoardo Farnese’s study in Rome. The theme remained a favorite for centuries. 

American artists such as Benjamin West (1738–1820), Thomas Sully (1783–1872), and the muralist Violet Oakley (1874–1961) tried their hand at the parable. John Adams used Hercules to embody his idea of masculine virtue. When the new Seal of the Nation was being designed, Adams suggested using the Choice of Hercules as the emblem, even though he later admitted to his wife Abigail that it was too complicated an image to make a good seal. A poignant counterpoint coexisted with Adams’s idea of Hercules as a model for men of the new nation; another Hercules, Hercules Posey (1748–1812), worked in enslavement in George Washington’s plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia. He escaped to New York in 1797 and was manumitted in 1801 through the terms of Washington’s will. 

—Susan Wegner

James Bowdoin III

The son of the wealthy merchant and second governor of Massachusetts, James Bowdoin II, Bowdoin figured among a small group of leading figures who recognized the value of art in fostering enlightened ideals and philosophical contemplation among a budding republic.