This painting, by the Dutch artist Paulus Potter (c. 1625-1654), was inspired by the myths and folktales of Orpheus—a legendary muse-born poet, musician and theologian whose extraordinary artistic ability allowed him to ingratiate himself into the goings-on of ancient Greek heroes and gods. In particular, the scene painted here by Paulus Potter depicts Orpheus grieving in isolation after he came close, but ultimately failed, in a rescue attempt to save his wife from the underworld of Hades. As the story goes, he recited his poems and played his songs alone in his forest retreat. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) described this scene in Book 10 of his Metamorphoses, writing, “Such was the shady cluster of trees which Orpheus attracted, sitting amidst a crowded assembly of birds and of beasts” and again in Book 11, stating, “With songs such as these the Thracian minstrel bewitched the forests, entranced the beasts and compelled the rocks to follow behind him” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.143-144 and 11.1-2). It is this imagery of Orpheus performing before an enraptured audience of animals that Paulus Potter re-creates. Some of the animals that he chose to include in the painting are curious, such as the camel on the left side of the artwork, and the unicorn on the right.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.