The extermination of the birds that lived on human flesh and destroyed the crops around Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia, was the fifth of Heracles' twelve tasks. Thanks to his skill as an archer he succeeded in destroying these sinister raptors. The son of Zeus and Alcimene, a personification of virile strength, Heracles, or his Roman equivalent Hercules, has remained, down the centuries, one of the best-loved characters of classical mythology. From the vases of antiquity to the works of Gustave Moreau, the innumerable images of the hero demonstrate his enduring popularity.
In a landscape of high, sheer cliffs, plunging down to Lake Stymphalus, Maxence draws the athletic body of Heracles in profile against a clear, blue sky. Wearing the Nemean lion skin, he takes aim at the head of the nearest bird. At his feet are the bodies of those he has already killed, while in the distance hundreds of enormous birds with their large wings spread out form a menacing cloud. Using effects that are almost cinematographic, Maxence brings in the notion of time and represents the full duration of the action. The terrifying clamour of screeches and the beating of wings seem to rise up from the flock of birds as they prepare to swoop down on Heracles.
The painting was probably exhibited in 1893 at the Société des Amis des Arts de Nantes subtitled "Imaginative Painting". This naïve description betrays Maxence's ambition to revive history painting by imbuing it with symbolism but without totally abandoning the pictorial codes of the Academy. In fact, although mythological iconography remained quite traditional, Gustave Moreau's legacy is noticeable, not only in the subject, but also in the composition and the treatment of the subject, making the landscape rather visionary, and giving the scene an element of fantasy.