Joseph Paelinck, a Belgian pupil and follower of Jacques-Louis David, painted Orpheus and Eurydice around 1815-20, as a more romanticized form of Neoclassicism overtook the heroism and politicized content that had dominated academic history painting through the years of the French Revolution and Napoleonic campaigns. As peace replaced war, stories of love and tragedy from poets such as Ovid or Longinus replaced the more martial tales of Aeneas and Homer as the favored subjects with a younger generation of painters.
That Paelinck painted at a time of great change in the artistic world is evident from his choice of incident in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, long a favorite story among classically trained painters and poets. Paelinck depicts the dramatic moment when Eurydice dies in the arms of her lover, Orpheus, from a snake bite to her foot (the villainous creature can be discerned slithering into the foliage at her feet). Much more common in earlier French art is the climactic (and more definitive) scene, in which Eurydice is taken from Orpheus a second time, after he had won her release from the underworld by charming Pluto with his music, only to lose his beloved forever by turning to look on her just as he stepped back into the world of man. Paelinck's construction of the story not only offered him an opportunity to display his superb skills as a draftsman by contrasting the powerful body of Orpheus directly with the slumping, softer form of his dying Eurydice. His composition also simplified the story to a more earthbound tale of love and loss, rather than an epic battle of man versus the gods. Paelinck's was an image more readily comprehensible to the broader audiences that were beginning to drive the artistic world in the early decades of the nineteenth-century, an age of illustrated books and Salons as popular events.
We are grateful to Alexandra Murphy for researching and preparing this catalogue note.