Gustave MOREAU | Orpheus [Orphée]

Gustave MOREAU
France 1826 – 1898

oil on wood panel
panel 154.0 (h) x 99.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase from the artist 1866
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

An almost life-sized but curiously elongated female figure set against an elaborate Italianate backdrop is seen through a ‘misty scrim of twilight tones’.1 When shown at the 1866 Salon, this painting was published with the artist’s own description: ‘A girl reverently gathers up the head of Orpheus and his lyre borne on the waters of [the river] Hebros to the shores of Thrace.’2 Moreau’s unorthodox depiction made it necessary for him to identify the subject for his viewers. In Ovid’s account, book XI of Metamorphoses, Orpheus—inconsolable after the death of Eurydice—is torn to pieces by incensed Maenads and thrown into the river, his head and lyre subsequently washing up on the island of Lesbos. There is, however, no mention of a Thracian maiden.

Moreau produced many studies for this painting. He posed his model holding a board in the shape of a lyre, using a cast of the face of Michelangelo’s Dying slave 1513–163 for Orpheus’ head. The features of the Greek poet and musician, and those of the maiden, are strangely similar: she contemplates the laurel-crowned head on its gorgeously decorated lyre as if examining her own reflection. Her elegant, orientalised costume contrasts with her large, sphinx-like feet. Subtle gradations of tone, achieved via glazing, are especially skilful on the dress. The delicate posy of flowers on her bodice is reprised by the lemons and leaves behind and at left of the figure.

Many of Moreau’s landscape designs are based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the rocks c. 1483–86 and Bacchus (St John the Baptist) c. 1510–13.4 In the present work, on the left, through the rock formation, we glimpse glaciers; at right a winding, silvery stream meanders through the distant landscape. The brooding sky lends a yellowish tinge to the fantastic scene. Moreau referred to the effect that he sought as le rêve fixé (the fixed dream). Other bizarre details, such as the shepherds on the massive rock arch, and the almost ‘grisaille’ tortoises contribute to the dream-like effect. Moreau’s approach has been compared to Wagnerian composition: the artist constructs his paintings as ‘symphonic poems’, loading them with significant accessories in echo of the principal theme, until the subject yields the last drop of symbolic sap.5

Moreau conveys the epic battle between the body’s basest passions and the soul’s loftiest aspirations via an amalgamation of Darwinist explanation and ancient myth.6 The tale of Orpheus was popular in the 1850s and 60s, and a favoured theme of Symbolist artists. Critics such as Ernest Chesneau and Théophile Gautier have remarked on the connection between Moreau’s rendition of Orpheus and his paintings of Salomé with the head of John the Baptist; the artist went on to create many images of this archetypal femme fatale in the 1870s.

Lucina Ward

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Robert Rosenblum, Paintings in the Musée d’Orsay, New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang 1989, p. 78.
  2. Pierre-Louis Mathieu, Gustave Moreau: complete edition of the finished paintings, water-colours and drawings, Oxford: Phaidon 1977, cat. 71, p. 306.
  3. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
  4. Both Musée du Louvre, Paris.
  5. Mario Praz, The romantic agony, 3rd edn, London: Oxford University Press 1970, p. 304.
  6. Douglas W. Druick, ‘Moreau’s symbolist ideal’, in Genevieve Lacambre, Larry J.Feinberg, Marie de Coutenson et al., Gustave Moreau: between epic and dream, Paris: Réunion des Musées nationaux, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Princeton University Press 1999, cat. 32, p. 96.