Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer began his early career as a ceramicist and later turned to painting and pastel. In 1896 at the Galerie Georges Petit, he exhibited, for the first time, about twenty pastels and paintings, these created a sensation and revealed his particular aptitude with pastel and his talent as a portraitist. He was raised by the Belgian Symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach, famous for his 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte of 1892, and whose portrait, now in the Musée d'Orsay, is considered one of Lévy-Dhurmer's masterpieces.
The female form became one of Lévy-Dhurmer's favourite themes and he was very influenced by Italian Renaissance art and the Pre-Raphaelites. The pastel medium allowed him to infuse his works with an evanescent quality, subtle and refined, which was well suited to a certain anti-modernist fin de siècle aesthetic. He modelled his nudes with a dreamy vapourousness, in an attempt to make the female anatomy render an equivalent of the auditory inpressions of Beethoven, Fauré and Debussy's music (P.L.Mathieu, The Symbolist Generation, Geneva, 1990).
Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos. Disappointed by his lack of male heirs, Acrisius asked an oracle if this situation might change. Much to his dismay, the oracle, instead of promising him male progeny, warned that he would be killed by his own daughter's child. As a precaution he thus locked the childless Danaë in a bronze tower. Zeus, however, being enamoured of her, managed to enter her sanctuary in the form of a shower of gold and seduce Danaë, leaving her pregnant. Soon after, their child, Perseus, was born and the prophecy eventually fulfilled.
Lévy-Dhurmer chooses that crucial moment when Zeus descends upon Danaë in a shower of gold. She is shown in ecstasy, shrouded in a gold mist whose drops are echoed in the fastastically tactile leopard skin that she lies on. In the typical vein of Symbolist imagery Lévy-Dhurmer focusses on Danaë as a femme fatale and emphasises the mysterious sexual dimension of the legend. When looking at this work, one immediately thinks of Gustave Klimt's famous Danaë of 1907. Lévy-Dhurmer's depiction of the virgin temptress is impressive in its size, and more evocative than his pale misty nudes such as Sonate au clair de lune also in the Musée d'Orsay. Danaë is one of the finest examples of Levy-Dhurmer's use of pastel as the quintessential vehicle with which to express the ambience so dear to fin-de-siècle Symbolism.