This painting, by the Austrian artist Oskar Laske (c. 1874 – 1951), was inspired by stories of the ancient Greek mythological figure, Orpheus—a powerful demigod musician who had the power to entrance seemingly everything in creation with his music. Although Orpheus was sociable in his early life, going on adventures and even joining as a member of the famous Argonauts expedition, he later withdrew from the public and became a recluse following the death of his wife, Eurydice. Grief-stricken Orpheus ventured into the underworld and made a pact with Hades in order to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living. Nevertheless, Orpheus carelessly broke the terms of the deal before his wife was fully resurrected, causing the musician to traumatically be forced to watch Eurydice be dragged back to the realm of the dead. After losing his wife for this second time, Orpheus recoiled into depressed seclusion, seemingly shunning all contact with anything besides the flora and fauna of nature. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) envisioned Orpheus’ lonesome late-life existence in his poem, Metamorphoses, describing the gloomy bard serenading the trees and wildlife with his music. In book 10 of his poem, Ovid wrote, “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, he stated, “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 plants and animals that Oskar Laske reproduces in his artwork. Yet, instead of being overly influenced by the melancholic nature of the tale, Oskar Laske notably chose to fill his painting with color and life.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.