Sir Edward John Poynter, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1826-1919)
Sir Edward John Poynter, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1826-1919)
Sir Edward John Poynter, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1826-1919)
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Sir Edward John Poynter, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1826-1919)

Orpheus and Eurydice

Sir Edward John Poynter, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1826-1919)
Orpheus and Eurydice
signed with monogram and dated '1862' (lower right)
oil on canvas
20 ¼ x 28 in. (51.2 x 71.1 cm.)
Mr P.C. Hardwick, by 1872.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, Belgravia, 5 November 1974, lot 18.
A. Staley, The New Painting of the 1860s, London, 2011, pp. 245, 247-8, no. 224.
London, International Exhibition, 1872, no. 429 (lent by Mr P.C. Hardwick).
Kofu, Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art; Osaka, Daimaru Museum; Yamaguchi, The Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art; Kurume, Ishibashi Museum of Art; and Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, Victorian Dreamers: Masterpieces of Neo-Classical and Aesthetic Movements in Britain, 8 April – 17 October 1989, no. 35.
Nottingham, Djanogly Art Gallery, Heaven on Earth: The Religion of Beauty in Late Victorian Art, 7 October-27 November 1994, no. 42.
Tokyo, The Bunkamura Museum of Art; Shizuoka, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art; Kobe, Daimaru Museum; and Ibaraki, Tsukuba Museum of Art, The Victorian Imagination, 2 January – 20 July 1998, no. 40.
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Lot Essay

This rare, early work by Poynter shows Orpheus, clutching his lyre, determinedly leading his dead wife Eurydice from the underworld. According to myth, Orpheus was the son of Apollo, god of music, and the muse Calliope. His marriage to the beautiful Eurydice was short-lived as soon after bathing with her fellow nymphs she was bitten by a venomous snake. Snakes can be seen continuing to threaten her in this composition. Orpheus was determined to recover her, and descended into Hades to bargain with Pluto, king of the underworld. There he so charmed Pluto with his singing that Eurydice was granted a reprieve, on condition that on leaving the underworld Orpheus did not look back. This he very nearly achieved, but on nearing the mouth of the entrance to the cave he faltered in his resolve. Full of longing he looked back on his beloved wife whereupon she dissolved once more into the shadows. Grieving, he renewed his song. This drew the attention of the Maenads, followers of Dionysus, noted for their demented state, who tore him apart. His head and his lyre became detached from his body, and washed up on a foreign shore where it was discovered, still singing, by the nymphs.

Poynter was an ‘Olympian’, one of a group of Victorian artists devoted to the Classical ideal, both in subject matter and execution. His hero was Leighton (see lot 18), whom he first met in Rome in 1854 when he was seventeen and thereafter encountered in Paris later in the decade. Leighton was pan-European, raised by his peripatetic parents in different cities throughout the continent. He had studied in Germany, then in Florence and Rome before settling in Paris for four years in the late 1850s. He only moved to London in 1859, having managed to absorb a variety of influences that made his style unique in the high degree of finish he managed to achieve. This was startlingly different to most British art of that date.

As with many artists disenchanted with the Academy Schools Poynter observed this Continental training with admiration and chose to study in Paris under Charles Gleyre, a Swiss, who had himself studied under Ingres. His time in Paris was later immortalised in George du Maurier’s novel Trilby of 1894 in which his character of the 'industrious apprentice' was contrasted with Whistler’s 'idle counterpart'. His absorption of Gleyre’s enthusiasms, a Swiss love of mountains, and skies that emphasise the drama of the narrative, can clearly be seen here. Evident too perhaps is the careful spatial arrangement seen in art of the Nazarene School, which emerged in Germany in the 1840s and whose seriousness of purpose inspired many of the first generation of Pre-Raphaelites. Poynter’s sensitivity to artistic trends can also be seen in the allusion to music within the picture. A lyre similar to Orpheus’s can be seen in Moore’s Dancing Girl resting of a comparable date, 1864 (lot 16). Walter Pater was to comment a decade later that 'all art aspires to the condition of music', and several artists throughout the 1860s would explore this rich and thought provoking theme.

The 1860s would prove a notable decade for Poynter. In 1865, three years after he produced this work, he painted perhaps his best known picture, Faithful unto Death (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) in which a guard remains at his post while Pompeii is destroyed around him. In 1867 he painted Israel in Egypt (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), a work of colossal scale whose cinematic qualities were later echoed in the films of Cecil B de Mille. 1866 meanwhile saw his marriage to one of the celebrated Macdonald sisters, making him brother-in-law to Burne-Jones and, later, uncle of the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and the novelist Rudyard Kipling. His 'industry', noted by du Maurier, later turned to administrative posts: he held the distinction of being both Director of the National Gallery, and President of the Royal Academy, in succession to Leighton and Millais. His final accolade was a baronetcy, awarded in 1902.

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