Even in the modern age, art often derives its inspiration from Greek and Roman classical stories. In many time periods, it has been considered fashionable to create works that were directly inspired by classical stories. One of the more recent revivals of this classical inspiration was during the Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite Movements in Europe during the 19th and Early 20th century.
John William Waterhouse was a painter in the 19th and early 20th century who is famous for his depictions of classical myths in a distinctive Pre-Raphaelite style. While Waterhouse did not begin his career painting images in the style of the Pre-Raphaelites, even his early work was very classically influenced. Around 1880, his work began to show the distinctive style of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. One of his later paintings is titled Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900). The image of Orpheus is not an usual subject for Pre-Raphaelite art. However, Waterhouse’s work is worth closer inspection for several reasons. First, he depicts a part of the narrative which is not usually shown; most Pre-Raphaelite images focus on Orpheus’s attempted rescue of Eurydice. Second, Waterhouse’s image is one of the most famous images of Orpheus, despite being a depiction of a less popular section of Orpheus’ saga. Finally, “Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus” is an adaption of Ovid’s work; Waterhouse uses a style and perception of beauty inherent to the Aesthetic Movement to represent a classical myth.
Before an analysis of his image can be thoughtfully done, one must first understand the art movements which surrounded him. The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of predominately English painters, writers, and musicians who tried to reinvent art history – instead of expanding on the style of the Mannerist artists who followed Raphael and Michelangelo, they embraced the classical poses and style of art before Raphael and Michelangelo. Hence the group’s name. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was a part of the larger Aesthetic Movement, which encompassed all of Europe. The Aesthetic Movement rejected the 19th century’s artistic obsession with realism, and focused instead on creating art simply for the sake of beauty. Painters and writers such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Oscar Wilde dominated the movement. This is also the first art movement that experimented with photography. The individual photographers of the Aesthetic Movement are not well known, but their work is nevertheless famous for being some of the first to explore the uses of photography as an artistic medium. One of the most well-known Aesthetic Movement photographers is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but his fame stems from writing the Alice in Wonderland books under the pseudonym Lewis Carrol. Lynn Federle Orr argued that, by 1985 the Aesthetic Movement had become suffused with decadence (Federle and Calloway). The search for beauty that the Aesthetic Movement prided itself on made it easy for outsiders to lampoon the movement, and it was quickly evolving into a vehicle for mockery rather than a fashionably artistic movement. As such, the Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite movement was drawing to a close when Waterhouse was in his prime. Many consider him influenced by rather than a part of the Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite Movements. However, he is still considered one of the “greatest of the late Victorian romantic painters” and is lauded as one of the few painters to successfully reconcile classical-inspired romantic art and the Pre-Raphaelite movement (Wood 45).
The tales of Orpheus, and the despair caused by a single backward glance, have inspired many artists over the centuries. The Pre-Raphaelites were no exception. Writers and artists such as Roland Leighton, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, William Morris, and Robert Browning created texts inspired by Orpheus (Henry). While Orpheus’ death does not figure into the story of his katabasis, the narrative most commonly referenced, it is nevertheless an important part of the mythos of Orpheus. Ovid’s version of the story (probably the most poetic, and therefore likely the inspiration behind Waterhouse’s painting) tells of Orpheus refusing the advances of a group of Maenads, female followers of Dionysus. Angry, they throw sticks and stones at him, but he sings such a beautiful song that the inanimate objects refuse to hit him. Furious, the Maenads descend on him and rip him to shreds in a Bacchaen fury. (This behavior was common among the Maenads, at least according to myth.) His head and lire are knocked into the river, and he floats to Lesbos, still singing. His head is found by the occupants of the island, and they bury his head and build a shrine around him. He continues to sing. Apollo was prophesied to someday visit the island and silence his singing. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
Waterhouse was a prolific painter. Some of Waterhouse’s most famous works are Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), Ophelia (1894), and The Lady of Shallot (1888). While his artwork was designed to mimic work of the classical period, he nevertheless uses period representations of beauty. Waterhouse’s depiction of the women of Lesbos finding Orpheus’ head clearly shows the influence the Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite Movements had on Waterhouse. The women in Waterhouse’s work look very similar to Dante Gabriel Rossetti‘s muse Jane Morris, who was considered one of the most beautiful women of the Aesthetic Movement. In fact, many of the women in Waterhouse’s work look extremely similar, and fit the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of female beauty. Ovid never refers to nymphs finding the head of Orpheus, but nymphs were a reoccurring theme in boh Waterhouse’s personal work and more broadly in Aesthetic Movement art. Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus is not simply a painting of a moment in Ovid’s story, but is also an adaption of Ovid’s work, using a style and perception of beauty inherent to the period Waterhouse painted in to represent a classical myth.
Federle, Lynn and Steven Calloway, eds. The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement, 1860-1900. London: V & A Publishing, 2011.Print.
Henry, Elisabeth. Orpheus and His Flute: Poetry and the Renewal of Life. Illinois: Southern Illinois UP, 1992. Print.
“Ovid: The Metamorphoses – Book XI.” Poetry In Translation. Trans. A. S. Kline. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. <http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph11.htm>.
Peter Trippi on the Painting Nymphs Finding The Head Of Orpheus. Perf. Peter Trippi. Royal Academy of Arts. Web Video.
Waterhouse, John William. Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, 1900. Oil on canvas, 149 x 99 cm. Collection of Sir Tim Rice.
Wood, Christopher. Victorian Painting in Oils and Watercolors. London: Antique Collector’s Club, 1997. Print.
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