According to Greek mythology, Hylas was the son of King Theidamas of the Dryopian aboriginals in Thessaly and the nymph Menodice, daughter of Orion. After Heracles (Roman Hercules) killed Theidamas in a battle, he took on Hylas as a servant, but taught him to be a warrior and ultimately fell in love with the attractive young man, whose hair hung down in curls. Heracles took Hylas with him on the Argo, the ship on which the mythological hero Jason sailed to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the symbol of authority and kingship. Heracles made Hylas one of the Argonauts, the band of great warriors, who accompanied Jason in his quest.
As they reached ashore Cios in Mysia, Hylas was sent to fetch water for preparation of the evening meal. While searching for water with a pitcher of bronze in his hand, Hylas came to the spring called Pegae. After that, he just disappeared mysteriously without leaving any trace.
The legend says, as Hylas arrived the spring, one of the nymphs of flowing water called Dryope, was just rising from the spring. It was night, the full moon beams deluged Hylas’ face, and the nymph fell immediately in love with Hylas, the attractive young man. As he dipped the pitcher in the stream, she laid one arm around his neck, yearning to kiss him and with her other hand she drew him down and plunged him into the water.
In some other version of the story, when Hylas arrived the spring, it was occupied by the beautiful bathing nymphs. The alluring naked nymphs, with their alabaster skin luminous in the dark but clear water, with yellow and white flowers in their auburn hair, seduced and lured him into the water and he disappeared forever.
The abduction of Hylas by the water nymphs was a popular theme of ancient art and has been an enduring subject for Western art in the classical tradition. As with many of the romantic artists, English painter John William Waterhouse has also taken inspiration from the classical tales of love and tragedy. His 1896 oil painting, Hylas and the nymphs was interpreted as a metaphor for dangerous female sexuality and warning against nymphomania.
It was exhibited in Manchester Art Gallery, but temporarily removed from display, allegedly to provoke a debate. The trick worked, as the decision was condemned by many and it was put back again on display following instructions from the city council, who are ultimately responsible for the gallery.
Apart from John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), eminent artists like, English painter of the late Victorian era Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae (1859-1928), Francesco Furini of Italy (1600-1646), French painter François Pascal Simon Gérard (1770-1837), the first significant British painter of nudes William Etty (1787-1849) also worked appreciably on the subject.