Oil on linen
The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund
Although many well-known ancient writers wrote about Orpheus, his history is muddled. By the 5th century B.C., the Greeks considered
Orpheus the founder of an early religion and a religious teacher. His mythology and fame as a singer derived from sacred texts ascribed
The Orpheus myth warns that death is inevitable, that even the power of song cannot save one from death. But it also reconciles life and death,
suggesting that death is actually the beginning of a new life.
Since ancient times, Orpheus has represented the supreme power of poetry and music to enchant all natural things. It was Orpheus the musician
who attracted the painter Maurice Denis. But, Orpheus's reputation as a religious and artistic teacher also endeared him to artists of
this era who, like Denis, were interested in the spiritual qualities of art.
charcoal, white chalk
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Maurice Denis and the Symbolists
Early in his career, Denis associated with a group of artists called Symbolists. The Symbolists challenged the value of naturalism as
an artistic goal. Instead, they used bright and often arbitrary colors, curving lines, flat forms, and unusual compositions to transform
the real world into personal symbolic statements.
The Symbolists sought an ideal synthesis of the arts. Maurice Denis believed, for example, that painting could have musical qualities and that
color, line, and form could convey a sense of rhythm and harmony. Denis collaborated with writers, poets, composers, performers, and
critics. Among his many interdisciplinary projects was a 1912-13 series of paintings on the history of music, including an image of
Orpheus, in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees (tay-AH-truh day SHANZ-ay-leez-ay) in Paris.
Orpheus and Eurydice
In the painting Orpheus and Eurydice Denis uses rich and pale greens, purples, browns, whites, and blues to evoke an idyllic moment
of humans in harmony with nature. It is a beautiful spring day with a bright blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and a blanket of lush green
and lavender flowers. No single figure dominates. Even Orpheus does not take center stage; rather, he stands to the right, playing his
lyre and charming all who have gathered to hear him. He wears a laurel crown, a cherished prize in ancient Greece, awarded to the best
poets and musicians.
Orpheus's white-clad audience, from the frontmost reclining woman to the embracing couple on the right, forms an open-ended circle around the
musician. By gradually reducing the size of the figures, Denis guides the viewer back into the forest. Kneeling beneath an arched bower in the painting's
Eurydice raises her hands in approval of Orpheus's song. The
sequence of figures creates a gentle rhythm that carries through the picture. Even the vertical trees curve gently, contributing to the
Denis's harmonious painting only hints at the tragedy that would befall the lovers. By isolating Eurydice under the hedge, he physically
separates her from all of the other figures.