Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861
At first glance, Corot's light-infused Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861) immortalizes the joyful emergence of Orpheus and Eurydice from the Underworld and their return to the breezy trees and light of living nature, which at this moment has never seemed so beautiful and precious. But wait - according to the Orpheus myth, they never made it back!
And sure enough, when we look again, we see the figures emerging from the mist in the background, their shadowy forms reflected in the quiet pool in the painting's mid-ground. These are surely shades, spirits of the dead. Orpheus and Eurydice, then, are still in Hades, just beginning their long (and doomed) journey back toward the land of the living, a journey that will end in ruin - though you'd never know it looking at Corot's lush, illuminated foliage, water, and hills.
Artists and poets have long used the Greek myth of Orpheus as a metaphor for aspects of the artist's life and creative processes.
In the classical myth as the Roman poet Ovid told it, Orpheus, the archetypal singer/poet, descended into the Underworld to rescue his bride, Eurydice, whom the Lord of the Underworld, Hades, had snatched away from the land of the living on their wedding day. Hermes told Orpheus he could go down to get her back but that he mustn't turn around to look at her until they were all the way out.
George Frederic Watts, Orpheus and Eurydice, c. 1870
Unfortunately, Orpheus turns to make sure she's still behind him, only to see her already insubstantial shade receding forever into the darkness below. Having now lost Eurydice twice, Orpheus concedes in despair that death has won. George Frederic Watts painted several different versions, both horizontal and vertical, of the relatively melodramatic moment when Orpheus understands his fate and desperately clings to the drooping, pallid corpse of his bride.
George Frederic Watts, Orpheus and Eurydice, c. 1873
Around the same time, the world's last great sculptor (ahem) Auguste Rodin, sculpted Orpheus and Eurydice half-emerging from the raw stone of his chunk of marble. The two figures seem at once to swoon with desire, lassitude, and inertia, as the cthonic forces of Hades impede their full ascent into airy daylight.
Auguste Rodin, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1877-98
Although here, because of the myth's outcome, it seems especially appropriate, Rodin often left ragged stone around his figures. It's part of the Modern, expressive character of his art, and it causes the figures to emerge from the stone (rather than being "carved from" it). It's also a metaphor for the Michaelangeloesque idea of the artist as creator-god who, through supreme spiritual (and physical!) effort, wrests beauty from primal chaos.
And the Orpheus myth echoes the same idea: The poet's song subdues nature. "Such was the grove of trees the poet gathered round him, and he sat in the midst of a crowd, of animals and birds," Ovid says. And when he mourns, so does the world itself. Ovid again: "the poet of Thrace, with [mournful] songs like these, drew to himself the trees, the souls of wild beasts, and the very stones that followed him."
So Orpheus spends the rest of his grief-stricken days singing about Eurydice and her loss, until a group of women intoxicated by their ecstatic worship of Dionysus come upon him and tear him apart in their frenzy. The last time we see him in in Ovid, some nymphs have discovered his decapitated head floating down their river, still singing in the melancholy tones that made him famous.
Our favorite French Symbolists, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, both envisioned Orpheus's head placed upon the symbol of his musical power - his lyre.
For Redon, the singer's disembodied head may serve as a symbolic embodiment of the painter himself. If so, in Redon's pastel, the figure emerges from a timeless, semi-abstract setting that we can see as both matter and spirit at once: clouds, mountain, river, flowers, stars, and mysterious light. Orpheus has become a stand-in for the otherworldly, mystical nature of the act of artistic creation.
Odilon Redon, Orpheus, c. 1903
With this in mind, recall Corot: his Orpheus lives at the moment when he still believes he will triumphantly lead the girl into broad daylight. Head intact, he lifts his lyre in victory, albeit premature. His body language says, "Onward and upward!" It's significant that, unlike the front-and-center characters in Watts, Redon, and Moreau, Corot's Orpheus and Eurydice are relatively small figures integrated into the overall landscape that makes up the true subject of the picture. Corot's depiction of the mythic symbol of art leads inexorably to a gorgeous landscape. After all, for Corot painting landscapes and happiness were one and the same.
I like to read Corot's version of the myth, devoid of any hint of a dark side, as a declaration of his creed: the modern artist must reinvent art as a celebration of this life, of the world as it appeals to our senses, seeking out the beautiful moments, however brief, that life interposes between the inevitable tragedies and disasters.