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Artist: Gustave Moreau
Created: 1865
Dimensions (cm): 99.5 x 154.0
Format: Oil on canvas
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France


Gustave Moreau drew much attention when he painted ‘Orpheus’ in 1865. The intriguing composition regards the famous Greek legend of Orpheus, a poet and musician so talented that he was believed to be able to charm beasts into submission. Moreau, known for his wild imagination, created a unique ending to the myth, and depicted it on canvas. The story goes that when Orpheus charmed the maenads, (seductive female followers of the god of wine), and then refused their advances, they tore him apart and threw his head and lyre into a nearby stream.

While most artists chose to paint the horrific events of the raging women murdering Orpheus, Gustave Moreau opted to depict his personal idea of what happened after the tragic slaying. He includes a young girl dressed in delicate oriental garments who, after having salvaged Orpheus’s decapitated head and lyre from the stream, lovingly stares at it with a sad facial expression that could signify regret or pity. The similarity of the two faces not only captivates viewers with its eeriness, but it also has them questioning the artist’s intention. This likeness may be symbolic in nature, but Moreau offers no explanation and leaves its interpretation to the onlooker’s imagination.

The painting’s sombre background is meticulously detailed, and harmonizes with the mystical mood of the painting. The composition is diagonally in sync; the musicians at the top left of the canvas are balanced by the two turtles at the bottom right.


With respect to Gustave Moreau’s style, the Musee d’Orsay’s website states: “In ‘Orpheus’, we sense the emergence of a semi-fantastic world with disturbing atmospheres, impregnated with ambiguous charms. The golden chiaroscuro, complex composition and sensual yet mystic mood that characterised Moreau's mature style about 1870 are already in place here. For all these reasons, Moreau counts as a decisive figure in the Symbolist movement.” – Musee d’Orsay

‘Orpheus’ by Gustave Moreau is located at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, France.


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