This evocative oil sketch was painted as Waterhouse prepared his great Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus (private collection), signed in 1900 and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts the following year.
The depiction of this mythic moment is unique within Victorian painting, and possibly within all of British art. Through the late 19th Century, Symbolist artists and writers had grown evermore enthusiastic about Orpheus, the greatest poet and musician in Greek myth, because he, like so many creative individuals, sang the truth and thus aroused resentment. Dismissed by his contemporaries as effeminate for mourning his wife too passionately, Orpheus was torn to pieces by Maenads after rejecting their advances. Into the river they hurled his head, which demonstrated art's immortality by continuing to sing as it floated away.
Victorian artists usually showed Orpheus singing while still alive, or rescuing his wife Eurydice from Hades. Most avoided the gruesomeness of Orpheus's demise, which instead attracted such Continental peers as the Frenchman Gustave Moreau. Indeed, Waterhouse may have been inspired by Moreau's pensive Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on his Lyre (1866), which the Englishman surely saw on visits to the popular Musée Luxembourg in Paris. Waterhouse was also probably familiar with the recent revival of Orphism, the ancient ecstatic cult that had celebrated Orpheus as a martyr before it was absorbed by the early Christian church.
Waterhouse had long been fascinated with the violent aspects of ancient myth. Yet rather than presenting a physically dynamic struggle (such as Ulysses and the Sirens of 1891), he imagined Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus as a scene of contemplation subtly laced with horror. Orpheus's severed head constitutes the key feature, yet viewers notice the beautiful nymphs first and last, and are drawn inexorably into the picture by their compassionate gazes and gestures. A now-unlocated drawing of the nymphs (published in 1917) reveals that Waterhouse considered-and wisely rejected-more horrified facial expressions and body language. Instead, he created a picture 'more of dream than of conscious thought,' a phrase coined by critic Frank Rinder that pertains equally to other Waterhouse masterworks of this period.
The present sketch deftly conveys the girl's mix of alarm and sympathy: her eyes gaze downward, drawing her head and upper torso forward without seeming ungainly. This work also reveals how Waterhouse built up his surface, focusing most intensively on the flushed face, then on the hair and other flesh passages. (Particularly adept is the shadowing along and below the right cheek, which allows the brighter nose and shoulder cap to guide our eyes downward.) Highly characteristic are the delicate blue colouring of the garment and the lively brushstrokes in the background, especially the dark dabs at right centre that hint at the right-hand nymph.
As with all of his major compositions, Waterhouse devoted much time to the planning of Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus. Among his other preparatory works are a large oil sketch of both figures (Lloyd Webber Collection), an oil sketch of Orpheus's head floating near a red-breasted robin in song (private collection), and several compositional drawings in his sketchbooks at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. This, however, is the only picture focusing on one of the nymphs, an exemplar of the rosy-cheeked, red-lipped "Waterhouse girl" now admired worldwide.