The tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice was a favorite of Gaetano Gandolfi, and he painted several versions and variations of the subject toward the end of his life. The story is recounted by Ovid in the Metamorphoses (10:1-63). Orpheus was a Thracian poet, able to charm wild beasts with the sound of his lyre. He married Eurydice, a wood nymph, and when she died after having accidentally trod on a viper, her grief-stricken husband descended into the Underworld in an attempt to bring her back to earth. He used his music to charm Pluto, god of the Underworld -- 'for the first time, they say, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears, for they were overcome by his singing.' The god agreed to allow Eurydice to follow Orpheus back to earth, on the condition that the poet walk ahead of her until they reached the upper world, and that he never look back. But at the last moment, as they emerged into the light and unable to fight his anxiety any longer, Orpheus turned to see if his wife had followed him, and in an instant she vanished forever into the shades.
Gandolfi depicted the climactic and heart-rending moment when the couple realize that they will forever be parted. 'Orpheus stretched out his arms, straining to clasp her and be clasped; but the hapless man touched nothing and but yielding air. Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint against her husband. What was there to complain of, but that she had been loved? With a last farewell which scarcely reached his ears, she fell back again into the same place from which she had come.'
Gandolfi's painting focuses intently on the stricken couple, as Eurydice swings to her right in terror at the sight of a snake slithering amid the leaping flames of Hades; Orpheus clings to her, his face still gazing upward toward the light that points to their salvation. Their figures fill the canvas, while the surroundings are reduced a just a few dramatic elements that indicate the protagonists' identities and the infernal setting -- shooting flames and barren, fiery rocks, serpents beside the frightened Eurydice and the instrument of Orpheus's seductive song (here, curiously, transformed into a guitar rather than the textually accurate lyre) at his feet. The palette is appropriately fiery throughout: scarlet, pink and golden yellows dominate the color scheme and softly illuminate the tawny musculature of Orpheus and the creamy skin of his wife's sensual body.
A splendid preparatory drawing by Gandolfi in black and white chalks, also once in the collection of David Rust and donated by him to the National Gallery of Art, Washington (2006.138.1; fig. 1), lays out the composition of the painting in every detail. Significantly, the sheet is signed and dated on the verso -- G.G.F[ecit]. 1802. -- permitting us to date the painting to the final year of Gandolfi's life. Indeed, the handling of the paint is characteristic of Gaetano's late style, as are 'the crabbed poses and the harsh linearism' (as Dwight Miller characterized them, somewhat uncharitably), which might be attributed to the influence of Felice Giani's neoclassical idiom. Miller recommends Gaetano's treatment of the subject, with 'a strong emotional urgency in the attitudes of his figures and a lot made of the flashing horror of the underworld and the fearsome serpents that inhabit the place.' He shrewdly observes that the subject is 'especially congenial to the fashionable mode for pleasurable horror peculiar to the iconography of Romanticism,' and indeed the present painting can be situated with the works of younger advanced painters working at the beginning of the nineteenth century, including John Martin, Anne-Louis Girodet, Henry Fuseli and William Blake, with whom Gaetano shared to some degree a sensibility. It is probable that the present painting was originally one of a series of four mythological canvases, now dispersed, but of the same size, date and format, which included an Apollo and Marsyas in a private collection, Atamante Killing the Son of Ino and Latona Turning the Shepherds into Frogs (both Molinari Pradelli collection).
This is the final occasion on which Gandolfi took up the subject of Orpheus and Eurydice, but he was returning to a theme he had been exploring for several years. A beautiful chalk drawing in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna (inv. 1691) is signed G.G.F.1798, and dedicated to Giovanni Battista Fornasari, a student at the Accademia Clementina when Gaetano was drawing master. It shares the same narrow, upright format as the 1802 composition, but in it a nude Orpheus looks directly at the viewer as he clings hopelessly to Eurydice; instead of a lyre or a guitar, his abandoned instrument is a lute. At least three versions survive of yet another composition on the subject, once again of the same general format, but this time with the two lovers embracing each other as they run forward to escape their fate. None of this group of two oil sketches and a drawing is either signed or dated, but all three are believed to have been made around 1798-1799. A ravishing oil sketch in a New York private collection (formerly, Sotheby's, New York, 4 July 1990, lot 17; then with Moatti, Paris) may represent the artist's first idea for the composition: in it, Orpheus still has the traditional lyre; in both the drawing (the attribution of which has been questioned; Prado, Madrid; inv. F.D. I.799; inscribed: Magnifico Gandolfi Gaetano), and the other oil sketch (lost; formerly the collection of the King of Romania), the lyre has been replaced with a violin. David Ekserdjan noted that Gaetano derived this particular composition from a lost painting by Annibale Carracci, known through a reproductive engraving by François Boucher. It is unclear why Gaetano regularly abandoned textual authority and replaced Orpheus's lyre with another instrument. However, the choice must have had personal meaning for him. Known to be musical himself, it has been suggested that the modern guitar in the present painting might have been Gaetano's own.
And surely, Gandolfi's final consideration of Ovid's sorrowful tale seems to be making a very personal statement. This most timeless and enduring of the ancient world's meditations on the inescapability of death, which eventually consumes lover and beloved alike, the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is a fitting subject for Gandolfi's valedictory masterpiece. A work of tremendous pathos, but also of enviable invention and vitality, Gandolfi's painting stands as a powerful exploration of profound issues of life and death by a great artist facing his own mortality.