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Music and Art

The Perfect Player
Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943), <I>Orpheus and Eurydice</I>, 1910, oil on canvas
zoom Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943), Orpheus and Eurydice, 1910, oil on canvas


In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the son of Apollo, god of music and the sun, and Calliope, the muse of poetry. Orpheus played upon the lyre so wonderfully well that all who heard him were charmed. His voice, too, was so beautiful that wild beasts, trees, and even rocks would come near to hear him.

This painting by the artist Maurice Denis shows Orpheus playing his lyre in a forest glade. On his head he wears a laurel wreath, a prize awarded by the ancient Greeks to the best poets and musicians. An audience of nymphs has gathered around him to listen, enraptured by the music, as you can see from their poses. One nymph, Eurydice, kneels with her arms outstretched, transfixed by his song.

Orpheus married the beautiful Eurydice. But shortly afterward, Eurydice stepped on a poisonous snake which bit her, and she died. Distraught with grief, Orpheus traveled to the Underworld to beg for the return of his beloved wife. His song of sorrow caused even the cold-hearted king and queen of the Underworld to weep. They decided to let Eurydice go with her husband on one condition: Orpheus must not look back at her until they both had left the Underworld. The two made the long, arduous journey, but just as Orpheus stepped into the upper world, he looked back. He saw Eurydice for a moment, and then she was gone.

Denis explored the power of music in several of his artworks. He hoped that his harmonious scenes could be heard like music. What do you hear when you look at this painting?

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1. The love affair between Orpheus and Eurydice was a popular subject for artists.
Pietro Fancelli, Study for Orpheus and Eurydice, 18th century, brown ink over graphite on paper
2. Orpheus played music that could soothe the wildest beast.
Pirro Ligorio, Orpheus Charming the Beasts, 16th century, pen and brown ink on paper
3. Eurydice died when a poisonous snake bit her foot.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Wounded Eurydice , about 1868-1870, oil on canvas


March 2007