NMAA Director's Choice

The Myth of Achelous and Hercules

detail from Achelous and Hercules The myth of Achelous and Hercules explains how the development of agriculture depended on the taming of rivers that overflow their banks and destroy cropland. At flood season the river god Achelous assumed the form of an enraged bull. He wrestled with Hercules for the favors of Deianira, who symbolized the fertile river delta.

In the struggle, Hercules vanquishes the bull and tears off one of his horns, which is magically transformed into a cornucopia spilling harvest abundance. Interestingly, this mural was painted in 1947, just as the Marshall Plan was put into place. Under the Marshall Plan, a key program of President Harry Truman, American cash and food was used to help rebuild Europe after the war. So celebrating American abundance may have been a timely subject.photo of Bentio

This would have been especially true for Benton, who wanted to revitalize his own career by associating himself with President Truman. Like Truman, Benton was short, feisty, irreverent, and from the state of Missouri.

Pictured: Thomas Hart Benton, Achelous and Hercules, 1947, tempera and oil, 62 7/8 x 264 1/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Allied Stores Corporation, and museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program.

Photo of Thomas Hart Benton, ca. 1926


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Achelous and Hercules
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