Orpheus and Euridice

Orpheus and Euridice by George Frederic Watts RA (1817-1904). Oil on canvas: 22 x 30 inches; 56 x 76 cm. [Another version, vertical format]. Provenance: By descent to the artist's grandson Ronald Chapman

Commentary by Hilary Morgan

Watts first painted the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the late 1860s. This decade saw a revival of classical subject matter in British art. It is a measure of Watts's flexibility as an artist that, in the middle of his career aged about fifty, he should become deeply involved in a new movement in art, sharing the aims of much younger painters such as Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones. His 'Orpheus and Eurydice' paintings are among the most powerful early masterpieces of this 'aesthetic classicism.'

The present picture is a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice exhibited in the 1869 summer exhibition of the Royal Academy (Forbes Collection, London & New York). As with most subjects that gripped his imagination, Watts treated it several times, refining the composition until it fully realised his ideal. The exhibited painting was preceded by a more sketchy version (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and there is a further version in the Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, Massachusetts).

The version here is probably the culmination of Watts's experiments with a horizontal format and half-length figures. Subtle refinements to the poses of the figures, particularly that of Orpheus, have enhanced their power and expressiveness. Watts painted 'Orpheus and Eurydice' on later occasions, but after 1872 he used a vertical format and full-length figures. The relationship between the present picture and a drawing in Sir Brinsley Ford's collection suggests that it is important as a transition between the two formats. This has led me to date the present painting to 1870-1872. although it has descended in the artist's family, it is not listed in the manuscript catalogue compiled by the artist's widow (three volumes, Watts Gallery, Compton) from which information about the other versions are drawn. However, this has many lacunae, especially regarding paintings produced before 1886, the date of the artist's second marriage. It is probable that, as he re-thought the composition, Watts set aside this painting, and it is possible that it was in storage and overlooked when the catalogue was compiled.

The story of Orpheus is recounted in many ancient sources. The most accessible account, and probably the one used by Watts, is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses (book X). Orpheus, the Thracian poet, descended to Hades to reclaim his wife who had died of a snake-bite. His musical skill stayed the torments of hell and so charmed Pluto and Persephone that they granted his request on condition that he did not look back at his wife as she followed him from Hades.

And now they were not far from the verge of the upper earth. He, enamoured, fearing lest she should flag and impatient to behold her, turned his eyes; and immediately she sank back again. She, hapless one! both stretching out her arms and struggling to be grasped and to grasp him, caught nothing but the fleeting air. And now, dying a second time, she did not at all complain of her husband; for why should she complain of being beloved? [Translation by Riley, 1861]

Three subjects from the story were particularly attractive to artists:

The first and the last subjects suggest respectively the power and the immortality of art. For this reason the Orpheus myth was central to the European Aesthetic and Symbolist movements. Leighton painted The Triumph of Music: Orpheus by the Power of his Art redeems his Wife from Hades in 1856 (present whereabouts unknown). Orpheus's head was painted by, among others, Gustave Moreau (1866, Louvre, Paris), Jean Delville (1893, Brussels, Gillion Crowet Collection), and John William Waterhouse (1900, Private Collection, reproduced C. Wood Olympian Dreamers 1983, figure 10). Watts, like most Victorian painters of the theme, chose to focus on the most romantic and tragic aspect of the story, Orpheus's final loss of Eurydice. Another image of the same subject, by Charles Ricketts concludes this catalogue [See Charles de Sousy Ricketts's Orpheus and Euridice].

In the 1860s Watts treated many themes of abandonment and disappointed love. Clytie (marble bust exhibited Royal Academy 1868: Guildhall Art Gallery, London: exhibited Victorian High Renaissance, 1978-1979, op. cit., number 16) whose yearning for the sun god Apollo turned her into a sunflower and 'Ariadne'. (versions exhibited Royal Academy 1863 and Dudley Gallery 1869) deserted by Theseus, share similar themes with 'Orpheus and Eurydice'. Watts probably exposed deep personal emotions in such subjects, for his first marriage, to the young actress Ellen Terry, ended in separation in 1865, after they had been together for only eleven months.

But Watts's impetus was not simply personal for the Orpheus and Eurydice theme was also popular with his closest artistic friends in the 1860s. In Victorian High Renaissance, Allan Staley suggests that Watts took it up in direct response to Frederic Leighton's 1864 Royal Academy picture (Leighton House). This is a distinctly odd treatment of the theme in which Orpheus pushes Eurydice away. Watts's painting may be intended to criticise this version. Leighton became Watts's near neighbour in Kensington in 1866, and the two men exerted a strong influence on each other for the next six years. In the late 1860s Burne-Jones produced illustrations to William Morris's unpublished Orpheus and Eurydice poem. (He later re-used them for the 1880 'Graham' piano, the designs for which inspired Sargent's portrait of Comyns Carr in the present catalogue, number 147, plate 109.) Watts painted portraits of his friends Burne-Jones and Morris in 1870 (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and National Portrait Gallery).

Watts's long career and his continual responsiveness to new trends in art means that he is the only Victorian artist to be involved both in early 19th century Neo-Classicism and in the new 'aesthetic' classicism of the 1860s. His 'Orpheus and Eurydice' epitomises the aims of the new movement, while continuing to use expressive techniques derived from the old. It was produced at a vital time of transition in European art. Some aspects of the painting look back to the traditions of the Renaissance, others forward to the preoccupations of the twentieth century.

Watts's Neo-Classicism is seen in his Caractacus led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome (fragments in the Victoria and Albert Museum, a small version exhibited Victorian High Renaissance, number 1) with which, in 1843, he won a competition concerned with the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament building in London. The picture represents a late phase of the Neo-Classical movement in which the style is as much Renaissance as Classical, but it has all the key Neo-Classical characteristics: clarity of design, a grand, generalised style, rhetorical gestures and expressions and an heroic subject, concerned with public virtue. Artists of the new classicism eschewed historical and heroic subjects in favour of poetry and myth, indeed the movement tended towards decorative and idyllic pictures, such as those of Albert Moore. although Orpheus and Eurydice shows a moment of deep human passion and tragedy, the emotion depicted is private, almost intimate, and this allies it with the new movement. The present version is perhaps the most intense, as every detail that might distract from the relationship between them has been eliminated. The picture even omits Orpheus's lyre, which is prominent in all the other versions. The omission of inessentials and concentration on the expressive potential of the figure are the elements that derive from Watts's earlier theories of art.

One of the most important tenets of the new Classicism was that the meaning of a painting should be carried by its artistic qualities of form and colour rather than in details and accessories that require reading and interpretation. Watts's picture epitomises this aim. This concern with the immediate effects of abstract qualities most clearly foreshadows modern art theories. Walter Pater was the most important spokesman of the 'aesthetic classical' painters. In the School of Giorgione, (1877), he wrote:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form ... it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it .... that the mere matter of a picture ... the actual circumstances of an event ... should be nothing without the form, the spirit of the handling, that this form, this mode of handling should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter: this is what all art constantly strives after (Pater, 1980).

Many pictures from the aesthetic movement depict music making, as if to demonstrate their adherence to this doctrine and it is no accident that Watts has chosen a myth with a musician hero.

The painting is also an important illustration of the stylistic preoccupations of the new movement, which believed that fifth century Greek art was the fountainhead of beauty, valuing in particular Pheidias's sculptures for the Parthenon, the Elgin Marbles. It rejected Roman and Hellenistic classicism (the 'Antique' of seventeenth and eighteenth-century art theory) because it stylised and distorted the human figure. Only the Elgin Marbles gave the human figure grandeur without losing its naturalness. The figures in Orpheus and Eurydice reveal close study of the Parthenon pediment figures in their anatomy and drapery. Watts believed that he had always preferred the Elgin figures: 'He seems to approve of few besides the Elgin Marbles as lessons to study from' (Watts, 1912), wrote a pupil in 1851, but the early Caractacus shows a greater influence of the 'Antique'. Only involvement in the new art movement showed him their true meaning.

Another characteristic of the movement was that its artists combined Classicism with other styles. Burne-Jones used the Quattrocento, Albert Moore and Whistler used Japanese prints and Watts chose the High Renaissance as is clearly visible in 'Orpheus and Eurydice'. The figures have a Michelangelesque dynamism. The landscape background and free handling of paint (in drapery and tree) derive from sixteenth century Venice. Watts even chose a style of frame associated with sixteenth century Venice to enhance his pictures. Many of his works try to combine the classical and Venetian ideals. The Wife of Pygmalion: a Translation from the Greek (exhibited Royal Academy 1868: Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park, Oxfordshire: exhibited Victorian High Renaissance, number 17) depicts a Greek bust (Ashmolean Museum Oxford) as if it were a living woman and in a Venetian format and style. As late as 1887 Watts associated the sculptures of Pheidias with the paintings of Titian, Tintoretto and Giorgione. He felt that only these artists were able to represent the true greatness of nature (Watts, 1912).

There are many studies for the various versions of the work. Most appear to date from the late 1860s when Watts conceived and developed the subject. Two drawings are in the Royal Academy, London, among the collection selected by Edward John Poynter, as President, under the terms of Watts's will. A head study for Orpheus is in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham's collection (Cecil French Bequest). A drawing for one of the horizontal format compositions is in the collection of David Loshak. Most interesting among the drawn studies is that in the collection of Sir Brinsley Ford. The upper half is very close to the composition of the present picture, but the figures are full length and a third figure (omitted from all known painted versions) appears in the bottom right corner. This emphasises the placing of this version in the sequence of Watts's paintings between his abandonment of the horizontal format and his development of an upright one. Watts also produced sculptured studies for the figure and head of Orpheus to help him realise the difficult pose of the figure and the tormented expression, both hard for a model to hold. (Two studies, plaster casts from clay or wax originals are in the Watts Gallery, Compton.) Watts's interest in sculpture developed in the 1860s, when he made both finished works (such as the bust of Clytie) and such studies. The production of sculptural studies for paintings was a Renaissance practice and passed into the academic tradition. The studies and the finished painting reveal Watts's fascination with dynamic twisting poses and especially with the stretch and turn of the neck. This seems to have been a personal idiosyncracy. Found in many other works of this time (such as Clytie), it should be seen as an aspect of Watts's enthusiasm for the Renaissance artist that earned him the nickname of 'England's Michelangelo.'


Manchester, City Art Gallery; Minneapolis, Institute of Art; New York, Brooklyn Museum 1978-1979. Victorian High Renaissance. Catalogue of the exhibition. Number 19, reproduced.

Morgan, Hilary and Nahum, Peter. Burne-Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Century. London: Peter Nahum, 1989. Catalogue number 117.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance... The 1893 text. Edited by Donald L. Hill. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Riley, Henry T. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Literally translated. London: H. G. Bohn, 1861.

Watts, Mrs. George Frederic Watts, Annals of an Artist's Life. Vols 1 and 2. London: Macmillan, 1912.

Peter Nahum Ltd, London has most generously given its permission to use in the Victorian Web information, images, and text from its catalogues, and this generosity has led to the creation of hundreds of the site's most valuable documents on painting, drawing, and sculpture. The copyright on text and images from their catalogues remains, of course, with Peter Nahum Ltd.

Readers should consult the website of Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries to obtain information about recent exhibitions and to order their catalogues. [GPL]

Last modified 7 January 2002