Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, retired to Naples in 1711 due to ill-health and planned a second, illustrated edition of his philosophical works, Characteristicks. For his treatise on the advantages of Virtue over Pleasure he commissioned an allegory of The Choice of Hercules from Paolo de' Matteis. A talented pupil of Luca Giordano, de Matteis had studied in Rome and worked in France: his graceful classicism earned him high-ranking patronage. Annibale Carracci's Choice of Hercules in the Palazzo Farnese was a source for the composition. Shaftesbury provided detailed instructions for the attitudes and expressions of the figures. Hercules must choose between the hedonistic life exemplified by Pleasure, or Vice, and the rocky path of Virtue. Completed by March 1712, the picture was probably framed in a plain dark moulding; the fine mid 18th-century rococo frame, perhaps designed by the architect Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769), was given to A1116 by the fourth Earl. An oil-sketch is now in Munich; a smaller, autograph version was commissioned for Shaftesbury's friend, Sir John Cropley (now Leeds City Art Gallery). A1116 was engraved by Simon Gribelin.
image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford