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Orpheus and Eurydice


Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus and Eurydice
Maurice Denis
Oil on linen
The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund

Key Ideas

Maurice Denis and the Symbolists
Orpheus and Eurydice

Discussion Questions

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 to him.

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.

Nymphs, Maurice Denis, about 1911, charcoal, white chalk, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Maurice Denis
about 1911
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 MIDDLEGROUND, 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 overall harmony.

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.

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