The story of the "Death of Nessus", painted in 1870, is drawn from Book 9 of Ovid's Metamorphoses: Hercules had asked the centaur Nessus to carry his wife Deianeira across the mighty river Evinos; but once on the other side, Nessus attempted to carry her off and rape her, and Hercules killed him with an arrow tipped with the venom of the Hydra of Lerna.
In this dramatic scene Delaunay relishes using shapes modelled on those of the Carracci and Pietro da Cortona.
There is something eerie about the Dejanira figure being borne away by the horse-man.
Built on a succession of horizontals, the composition is characterised by a muted palette reminiscent of that of Gustave Moreau, a friend from Delaunay's Roman days.
Framed by two clumps of trees, the work shows Heracles (or Hercules) in the background and Nessus and Deianeira in the foreground.
The river Evinos divides the scene in two, guiding us diagonally from right to left.
In the upper left distance we can make out what looks like a small Italian city in the Apennines, with its citadel.
The centaur struck by Heracles' arrow stumbles as he scrambles out of the rushing river.
His cry of pain mingling with Deianeira's call for help.
In the same way Nessus's gesture as he tries to wrench out the arrow counterbalances the movement of Deianeira's arms reaching out towards Heracles.
This was a frequent subject in the seventeenth century, especially among Italian and Flemish painters. The presentation here is reminiscent of Guido Reni's Deianeira and the Centaur Nessus (c. 1617, Paris, Musée du Louvre) and Adriaen de Vries' sculpture Hercules, Deianeira and Nessus (c. 1608, Paris, Musée du Louvre), works Delaunay was probably acquainted with.
The muted colours are accentuated only in the details of the clothing of Nessus and Deianeira. The fragmented, discreetly highlighted brushstrokes use mainly ochres, browns and greens, while the red-blue-yellow trio of Deianeira's robe focuses our gaze on the characters.
Gustave Moreau, an intimate friend of Delaunay, was influenced by him, and borrowed his use of colour for his Dejanira (Autumn) (1872-73, oil on wood, 21 x 17 cm, 84.PB.682, Getty Center, Los Angeles).
Clearly visible here is a retouching of the initial painting where Delaunay has placed the centaur's foot in the water, creating a splash.
The Nantes Museum of Fine Arts also holds the preliminary drawing for this work, showing Heracles firing his arrow (red chalk, 25 x 19 cm, Inventory no. 1377).
Another version of the painting is to be found in the museum in Tondern, in Denmark. It was formerly part of the Magnusen Collection.