Providing the theme for some eight paintings and watercolours, the subject of Orpheus was a deep vein of inspiration in Gustave Moreau’s oeuvre.
Moreau exhibited at the Salon in 1866 one of his most famous paintings of this subject (fig. 1, now in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay) of which there are several versions mostly executed between 1865 and 1870 (cfr. Mathieu, 1998, no. 84 to 90). This composition quickly became the manifesto of Moreau’s 'decadentisme’ and struck the imagination of an entire generation of Symbolist artists.
In the present work a beautiful Thracian maiden reverently beholds the head and lyre of the dead poet Orpheus. Melancholy permeates the composition. The central figure is set in a classical pose, against a vertiginous rocky background. The picture hints at the duality of woman – simultaneously representing the forces of destruction and of new life, for while the maiden may glance reverently at Orpheus, so too the Maenads, incensed by the poet’s indifference to them, were responsible for savaging him to death.
The artist will return to the theme of Orpheus later on in his life. In a watercolour executed twenty years later, dated circa 1887, Moreau captures a different episode of the myth: La Douleur d’Orphée. Here Moreau is not interested in the final cathartic act of Orpheus’ tragedy but he instead decides to emphasise the role of the poet, who sings his desperate eulogy to the dead Eurydice.
The present lot is sold with a certificate from Pierre-Louis Mathieu dated 23 September 2019.