Le désespoir d’Orphée / Orpheus in Despair

ca. 1885-90

Pencil on ribbed hand-made paper (watermark: DAMBRICOURT FRERES)
Inv. No. 16269

36.5 × 22.6 cm

zur  Biographie

Odilon Redon concerned himself in a great variety of ways with the mythological subject of Orpheus, an extremely popular one in his day. In this pencil drawing, in a manner both unusual and powerful, he has succeeded in interpreting the theme of the Apollonian singer’s despair at losing his companion Eurydice. Orpheus has put his kithara down on the ground and stands as though rooted to the spot, leaning back against a tree. He raises his crossed arms in a gesture which may be read as one of hopelessness but also of self-protection, an attempt to ward off something inexplicable that is happening to him. An insidious wind, indicated by light horizontal lines and a few falling leaves, fills the air. It has taken hold of Orpheus’s clothing with mysterious force and changed it into a rigid, rock-like formation. An experienced draughtsman, Redon exploits the qualities of pencil to present the tension-filled contrast between light, fleeting movement and the change into immobile stone, but not only that: the centre of the cloak, shown as being denser where it is closer to the body, suggests the imminent metamorphosis of the whole figure. The hopelessness of the dramatic situation is reflected in the desolate lover’s wide open eyes, which have been darkened to a deep black.


The idea of expressing Orpheus’s profound sorrow in a visual medium probably came to Redon when reading the verses in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that relate how the singer’s horror at the death of his beloved Eurydice only left him when he had undergone transformation and his body had turned to stone. While that literary source may have inspired Redon as far as form and creative concept are concerned, there is another parallel, from the realm of theatre, which the artist brings overtly to the viewer’s attention.


Isolated rocks in the foreground lead the eye to a short sequence of music accompanied by the words, »J’ai perdu mon Eurydice. Rien…« (»What is life to me without thee«). This is the opening of Orpheus’s lament in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orphée et Eurydice. Redon, for whom music had always been very important, succeeded magnificently in executing a drawing whose intense emotion matches that of the aria.


In addition to charcoal drawing, lithography, pastels and painting, the medium of drawing in pencil remained important to Redon throughout his life. It allows him to model fantastical visual worlds without material description, and yet it creates the impression of organically developed forms and serves as a constant reminder that the artist took visible reality as his chief orientation.

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