Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Orpheus: The Artist as Poet

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.

John William Waterhouse, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, 1900

Our favorite French Symbolists, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, both envisioned Orpheus's head placed upon the symbol of his musical power - his lyre.

Gustave Moreau, Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on a Lyre, 1865

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.


  1. Thanks Anna! I think you might also really enjoy the previous post as well on GF Watts and his painting of the Minotaur.

  2. Provocative. It's always interesting to take a step back and see how an artist's personality or viewpoint frames the treatment of a myth. Sadly, I don't take the time to do that enough. Thanks for the perspective.

  3. Hi Colles!
    Thanks for checking in! So many other divergent treatments of this myth... Jean Cocteau's amazing film "Orphee" comes to mind..

  4. I love your posts - provocative, well-written. They stay with me through the day, bearing thoughts with a broader context. Thanks!


    orpheus and eurydice 1

    My home is near the falls, near surf,

    The rapids as past Salmon Falls past White Foam Bar,

    And when I sleep the roaring's through my arms,

    Like when I hold a second pillow- where you used to sleep!

    A giant bell of it: "bong, bong"- the way life is here-

    Rolling me up in long combers of surf-

    Off-white like crab meat but glowing,

    That crawl forward, one after one. I sleep

    Climbing the falls, up behind its

    Curtains of roaring blown by me-

    Incessant, incandescent- to the cave halfway up

    Where I find my heart missing already

    For centuries.. Lorna Doone's gone and now you.

    Other losses I can get over, not this one, why should I?

    For the falls slant and the beach curvwes away-

    Some rocks glow under black light-

    Tail of white deer flashed, is long gone,

    Idaho silver, the Coeur d'Alene mine abandoned...

    Like wind blows out curtains in a million old rooms

    Water fashions a new lover to lie next to me.

    I'm glad it* will turn into a headstone.

    I hope it doesn't turn into a headstone!

    * she?

    I wanted to be drenched in the Rachmaninoff.

    Certain words wanted to make it into the poem but couldn't, so as a courtesty, I'll list them: flechette, crevasse, Versailles, hiss...hisss

    2 Last Poem to Eurydice

    Riches starting to come my way again...

    Possible lovers to want me....

    Want me to takes time, it takes time....

    But March comes, all that gold stuff, gold things,

    Increasing the gold til it all sings.

    Love will come by the summer.

    Laminates of gold, gold wrenches,

    Tooth inlays and onlays, how Hundertwasser painted,

    Yeat's poem "Golden Apples", Dave van Ronk sang.

    Maybe a muse but more likely some

    Warm, humid peaty sourish smell of real

    Sutters creek*, twang, ren, fiddle

    Vein of them heading off into Sierra.

    I'd pan all the way to Mt. Hood looking

    The back creeks for the calmness

    Before they start singing, the sluice way

    Down the gate rungs, Multnomah

    County, Sonoma, Sonora, Sonesta,

    How you linger, yeah I see how

    That memry comes up now, begins to

    Take shape, how it lay there

    Like an ore seam; now I know where

    It lies, where you lie- the riches.

    You be no further than here, you descend you

    Between me, having become where

    I look now and again just for singing.

    david eberhardt

    at first rejected when i tried to put in an url how ridiculous
    let's try anonymous
    have to bill gates to enter?
    otherwise i like
    solly- pleae warn yr users chris