Nymphs Listening to the Songs of Orpheus, by Charles François Jalabert (c. 1819-1901)

As the title explains, this painting—by the French artist Charles François Jalabert (c. 1819-1901)—depicts a crowd of nymphs gathering to hear the playing and singing of the reclusive master musician, Orpheus. Whenever the legendary bard struck up a song, everything in creation (animate and inanimate, mortal and divine) could not help but to be transfixed by the music he made. As a superstar musician of ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus had no shortage of willing groupies of both the human and supernatural kind. Yet, to the great disappointment of these women, Orpheus was a devoted husband to a wife named Eurydice, who tragically died not long after their wedding. Following her death, distraught Orpheus ventured into the land of the dead in hopes of saving Eurydice. Hades was swayed by Orpheus’ musical prowess and he allowed for the musician to lead Eurydice out of the underworld, but the catch was that Orpheus must not look back at his wife until they reached their home. Orpheus, tragically, could not stop himself from taking a peek to make sure Eurydice was following him out of the underworld. She, indeed, was right behind him, but as soon as Orpheus broke the rules by taking an early glimpse, he had to traumatically watch Eurydice be dragged back to the realm of Hades. After losing his wife for this second time, Orpheus went into depressed seclusion, and rejected any urge to enjoy female companionship while he still lived.

After Eurydice was twice torn away from the land of the living, Orpheus began to play his music only for himself. Nevertheless, everything around him naturally gravitated toward him as he played. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), wrote some of the best descriptions of Orpheus’ reclusive concerts. He wrote, “With songs such as these the Thracian minstrel bewitched the forests, entranced the beasts and compelled the rocks to follow behind him” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 11.1-2). In regard to the shadowy cage of trees that can be seen encircling Orpheus in Charles François Jalabert’s painting, there is another quote by Ovid that works quite well. Ovid wrote:

“Shade was provided when Orpheus, the heaven-born bard, sat down
and started to play on his lyre. Trees suddenly came on the scene:
the oak of Dodóna, a copse of poplars, the high-leaved durmast,
lindens, the beech and the virgin laurel; the brittle hazel,
the ash that is made into spears, the knot-free fir and the ilex
bending under the weight of its acorns; the genial plane tree.
the maple of many colours, the willow that weeps by the river;

Such was the shady cluster of trees which Orpheus attracted”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.88-143)

As nymphs were nature deities, it is likely that the group of them seen huddled below Orpheus in the painting were drawn to the scene just as the supernaturally-inspired plant life had been. In the painting, the nymphs seem calm, relaxed and otherwise enjoying the free concert. Yet, Orpheus would not continue to be so lucky with the bands of women that pursued him—as the story goes, he would later be murdered by a mob of women whose advances he had rejected.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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