This painting, by the French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (c. 1796-1875), may seem calm and restful at first glance, but the deceptively tranquil image actually alludes to a much darker tale of tragedy. As the title of the artwork discloses, the woman featured in this painting is Eurydice. According to ancient Greek mythology, she was a nymph who fell in love with the legendary musician and theologian, Orpheus. Theirs was true love, and the scene depicted above was said to have occurred not long after their wedding day. In fact, in some accounts of the myth, the particular incident shown here is hinted to have happened on the very day of the nuptials. Regardless on which day the scene occurred, it would prove to be a tragic turning point in the ill-fated love story of Eurydice and Orpheus. Eurydice, as the title reveals, was wounded in the moments prior to the image freezing in its current frame. All of this impending misfortune faced by Eurydice was caused by a snake, which bit the foot that the nymph can be seen inspecting in the painting. The bite, and the poisonous venom that came with it, would prove fatal. Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), a Roman poet, described this mythical death scene:
“The outcome was even worse than foreshadowed: the newly-wed bride,
while taking a stroll through the grass with her band of attendant naiads,
suddenly fell down dead with the fangs of a snake in her ankle.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.8-10)
This sad event, no matter how tragic it was on its own, was actually just the prelude to a much more elaborate myth—the story of Orpheus journeying into the underworld in an attempt to bring Eurydice back from the dead. It was a myth masterfully retold in separate works by the aforementioned Ovid and his older contemporary poet, Virgil (c. 70-19 BCE). For the sake of brevity, however, the concise summary written by the scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) will be provided here:
“[Calliope, the muse of poetry, bore] Orpheus, who practised the art of singing to the lyre, and set rocks and trees in motion by his singing. When his wife, Eurydice, died from a snake-bite, he went down to Hades in the hope of bringing her up, and persuaded Pluto to send her back to earth. Pluto promised to do so, provided that on the way up Orpheus never looked round until he had arrived back at his house. But Orpheus failed to obey him, and turning round, he caught sight of his wife, and she had to return below” (Apollodorus, Library, I.3.2).
Such, then, is the myth that inspired this painting. In Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s artwork, Eurydice is shown in the moments before her death. Unlike in the quick, instantaneous collapse described by Ovid, the Eurydice of this painting was given time to reflect and contemplate on her fate.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.