Orpheus and eurydice



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ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE
Heaven itself has a peculiar regard for order and resolution in the cause of love. And yet the gods sent Orpheus away from Hades empty-handed, and showed him the mere shadow of the woman he had come to seek. Eurydice herself they would not let him take, because he seemed, like the mere minstrel that he was, to be a lukewarm lover, lacking the courage to die as Alcestis did for love, and choosing rather to scheme his way, living, into Hades. And it was for this the gods doomed him, and doomed him justly, to meet his death at the hands of women.

Plato: Symposium, 179d

Plato’s view is at odds with the surface story of Orpheus as it comes down from Greek mythology, and was retold in Virgil’s Georgics and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Poussin sides with Plato.1 But let us first go over the story.

Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse of the heroic epic, Calliope. His father gave him a lyre and taught him to play and sing so divinely that his music would enchant all things, whether living or dead. The rocks became soft, the lions tame, under the spell of Orpheus’ music. Then he married Eurydice, but the omens were bad, for Hymen, the god of marriage, who was supposed to bless the union, arrived with a smoking torch that brought tears to the eyes of the bride and groom. Soon after, Eurydice, while wandering with her nymph companions in a forest, was chased by a shepherd who had been struck by her beauty. In fleeing she trod on a snake hidden in the grass and was bitten in the ankle. She died.

Orpheus was overwhelmed with grief. He undertook the long and dangerous journey down into the underworld where he pleaded with Persephone and Pluto, the monarchs of the dead, for the return of his beloved, for the duration of a normal life-time, which was short enough in any case. He threatened to kill himself if they refused. He accompanied his plea with music, wooing the underworld, so powerfully it was said that the cheeks of the black Furies were for the first time ever wet with tears. His wish was granted, but on the condition that he not look back during his return to the earth. After a tormentingly long trek up a dark and endlessly winding stone path, Orpheus, in a moment of doubt or forgetfulness, looks around, only to see Eurydice right there. They stretch out their arms, and clutch empty air. She dies a second time, with Ovid recounting her breathing a last faint ‘Farewell’, and with no complaint against her husband, for what could she hold against him except that she was loved. Virgil describes her disappearing ‘like a wisp of smoke thinned into air’. Orpheus tried to cross the River Styx a second time but was turned back by the ferryman.

Orpheus now shuns all women and devotes himself to his music, singing out his lament of happiness that was stolen from him. Virgil puts it:



He wept beneath a crag high up by the lonely waters


Of Strymon, and under the ice-cold stars poured out his dirge


That charmed the tigers and made the oak trees follow him.

Ovid has it that Orpheus then turned his attention to young boys, setting the fashion in Thrace for ‘enjoying the springtime and first flower of their youth.’

The last cycle in the myth introduces a horde of Thracian women, who are in a state of drunken Bacchanalian rage, being ‘flouted by his neglect’. Ovid describes them as ‘crazed’, ‘their passion knew no bounds; mad fury reigned’. They attack Orpheus, throwing rocks and javelins. He is protected by the sacred shield of his music. Finally their screams and howls, mixed with horns, flutes and drums, drown out his voice, and the missiles strike home. They attack with clods, branches and stones, ripping nature apart. Some burly peasants nearby, working their fields with oxen, see the carnage and flee. The berserk women seize hold of the abandoned hoes and mattocks and use them to butcher the oxen, which have impotently threatened them with their horns. They then return to Orpheus and when they have finished pitch his severed head and smashed lyre into a lake. The story closes with Bacchus punishing his followers by turning them into trees and abandoning them. Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice at last. They are thereafter always to be seen together among the shades, arm in arm, their love fulfilled in eternity.

Poussin follows his usual practice of condensing an elaborate story into a single visual image. In the foreground a startled Eurydice has just seen the snake in the grass.2 She is jumping to her feet, but too late. She has been bitten—we see the snake leaving. Behind her a fisherman turns around to witness the tragedy. Orpheus gazes rapturously at the heavens as he plays his lyre and sings with all the fervour of his being. He is already not of the world. He does not see his bride, and her peril. It is not just that his gaze is upwards, but also that his vision is blocked by three nymphs, and especially one standing, Eurydice’s companions.



In the right foreground are the signs of the recent marriage ceremony. On a grassy mound a pair of overlapping wreaths lie in front of two shawls, one gold, one grey-blue. Behind are vessels, symbolizing the feast, one for wine, one for food, and a metal basket which seems to hold bread and perhaps silver goblets. To their left is a vase full of flowers. Its pair is at Eurydice’s feet, kicked over in her terror. Hanging on a branch above the standing vase are two quivers, presumably belonging to Orpheus, and a bright red mantle. A large tree dominates the right, with one of its twin trunks splintered off, symbolising the death of the bride.

The middle ground is a lake. The fisherman links the people in the foreground to it. Behind him men slave at ropes pulling a cargo boat,3 while one man onboard uses a pole to keep it away from the bank. A group of naked men to the right lounge around, cavort, and swim.

The background is a town, with loose associations with Rome, and behind it a landscape with a high rocky acropolis nearby, leading back through hills to a snow-capped mountain. Two large columns of smoke rise. It is not clear whether they come from the town, or are rather volcanic eruptions just to its rear. The sky is cast over with light clouds. More dramatically, night is moving in with great speed from front left. The bright sunlight that illuminates Eurydice and Orpheus is about to set.

The Orpheus myth is an accumulation, built up like the ancient city of Troy, many cities on top of each other, with every new one built out of the ruin of its predecessors, in part incorporating them, in part new. The story gave rise to one of the most vital traditions in the religion of the ancient Greeks, Orphism. Poussin would have received the myths very much as we do, a series of incidents, fairly coherent, in which the main theme is that of whole-hearted love which is thwarted by a malevolent fate. This is the line that both Roman poets, Virgil and Ovid, took. Poussin may also have been influenced by Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo, which he could have seen in the Barberini theatre in Rome.4

The standard version of the story implies that the haunting power of Orpheus’ music is born of his suffering. Orpheus has just crossed the threshold into marriage, and anticipates fulfilment on earth, as a devoted husband with a happy family to come. His dream is stolen away from him. So he pours into his music his frustrated eros, pulsing through his grief at the loss of his beloved, and the flattening of his human hopes. He turns himself into his song, the substitute for the life he has lost. Orpheus the man is transmuted into art. Losing all desire for the world he forsakes women. It is only in death that he may now find happiness. And it is because his soul is detached from his body, entirely given to his song, that he is able to inspire the most resiliently profane things on earth—rocks, lions, and even the dark Furies.

This is not Poussin’s reading. The story is reworked. At first glance the painting is one of those, like the Phocion pair, in which the artist sets out to study the tricks of Fortune.5 Here the ‘blind madwoman’ strikes through snake-bite, thus setting off a chain of events which end with Orpheus being torn to bits by crazed nymphs. Poussin’s interest in this work, however, is not the Stoic one of examining how humans bear up to a savage and incomprehensible destiny, but rather in the causal background of character and motive.

The cause of misfortune is explicit. It is Orpheus’ own weak desire. Plato described him as a ‘lukewarm lover’. The subject of the painting is male and female, and the consequences of balances in the highly unstable chamber of eros tipping out of equilibrium. The entire world is in upheaval. Chaos in this case is due to human fallibility. More precisely, the trigger is a man who is not a man.

It is music, not women, that Orpheus loves. Intoxicated by his own song, he gazes rapturously at the heavens. He is oblivious to his wife. Given that he has just married, and the curtain has not even dropped on the ceremony and its feast, this is extraordinary. What should be overlapping garlands on the grassy mound, still blessed by sunlight, are funeral wreaths—they have no flowers. Also, the mound itself is arid, in contrast with the lush grass below. The two vases of flowers are separate. Eurydice is shown as young and innocent. She sees that her husband does not notice her. She is hurt and thrown off-balance. She does not know what is happening. Poussin shows her in a flurry, arms flying, startled, an uncomprehending shock on her face, about to scream. The sequence is that Orpheus’ lack of passion makes her flustered, and in her disorientation she is vulnerable to the snake. If she had been herself, she would have been alert and prudent. Moreover, it is the husband’s duty to protect his wife from danger. Orpheus is blithely unaware of what is happening. Eurydice must have lost her second marriage garland, the one she wore. Her golden hair flies free.

Orpheus lacks fidelity. In the story his turning around before they have left the underworld is a sign of a man who does not trust. He lacks faith in his wife. In the painting Poussin suggests that dubious manliness by hanging the weapons on a tree well away from him. Orpheus is musician, not warrior, Plato’s ‘mere minstrel’. It is parody that his mother was muse of the heroic epic: this Orpheus could not be further removed from the heroes of The Iliad. Indeed the red of the cape draped across his lap is the colour of the tapestry Helen wove inside Priam’s citadel, depicting the scenes of battle caused by her, the colour of blood. But the red of Helen’s art is in sublimated penance for the havoc her passion initiated, a seduction that pitched the civilized world into a ten-year war and destroyed an entire people, the Trojans. Orpheus is dry of that sort of passion. There is, however, a further parallel, between the haunting beauty of the face that launched a thousand ships and that of Orpheus’ music—such divine, unflawed loveliness spells trouble.

Orpheus is his father’s son. Apollo was repeatedly spurned by women he wooed, whom he then tended to punish viciously. He had a score of homosexual engagements. There is something effeminate about both father and son. Father was known for the soft beardless skin of his face and his golden hair—this is how Poussin portrays son, and with delicate, sensitive features. Moreover, the lyre is side on, exhibiting its strikingly female contours. It is as if Orpheus plays on the womb. Even the placing of the instrument between his legs is suggestive of it being the object of his love, an abstracted displacement of the female. The true companion of this sexually neuter, man-woman is the heavens. Their colour is matched by the cold grey-blue tones of his off-white wedding shawl.

Poussin goes on to theorize the consequences of such men. There is the effect on women. He details a variety of female responses. The first is that of Eurydice. Neglected, she is confused and flustered. The vase is kicked over, the flowers spill. There will be no fulfilment, leading to pregnancy and children. Eurydice is hardly more than a child, naive, open, and trusting—welcomed into adulthood with a betrayal that destroys her.

The second is the two women reclining together, near Orpheus. They are complete in themselves, representing the two sides of the ideal woman. The one closest to Orpheus is enchanted by the music. She is spirit—open-faced, other-worldly, with the semblance of a muse. The white in her undergarment, Virgin blue in her robe, and light sky blue in her mantle are evocative of the sacred. Her garland includes only white flowers—as does that of Orpheus himself. Her companion is earthy femininity—eros—lounging, clothed in dusty pink, showing mild interest in the scene, at home in the world, her robe slipping casually off one shoulder, exposing her back. The sun highlights the bare flesh.

The third response is that of the woman alone, standing. For her the spell has broken, and she is cut off, irretrievably distant from the man. She knows he is not interested in her. Tightly laced up, no flesh bared, her shoulders sag in resignation, the cast of her body slumped while standing. Her left arm hangs limply. Both spirit and eros have been drained out of her. She is self-conscious in her dejection, with some of Eurydice’s awkwardness. There is no poise, no physical grace. A darker motion begins. Her look is not just despondent. There is also rancour. She is bitter, and partly with good cause. ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ She is half wallflower, half witch. She looks down, with some shame at her malicious thoughts. Poussin strengthens the bite of her rancour by positioning her between the newly-weds, as if she is deliberately blocking Orpheus’ sight of his wife, and the danger she is in. This woman is in league with the poisonous snake. The logic of envy is that if the happiness of marriage is not for me then she shall not have it either. Her rancour also has a second source. She wears the same dusty pink as the lovely sensual woman in front of her, but entirely lacks her feminine charm. Indeed her mantle is a greyish white bulk.6

The Thracian maidens are only implicit in the painting, those driven berserk by an explosive concoction of rancour and Bacchantic revelry. The five brute men who labour pulling the boat double as the horned oxen the women will massacre. Indeed they are bent over forwards just like four-legged beasts of burden, straining on their rope. In its last stage, the legend has it, frustrated female eros turns barbaric, into a mad drunken frenzy, obliterating the weak man who had aroused it, and crushing his instrument. In smashing the lyre they act out the destruction of their own femininity. Poussin has the lyre as very prominent, and in Orpheus’ lap, almost taunting the women. It has a strong affinity with the lake, the other symbol in the picture of an expansive femininity. The lyre will end in the lake.

The consequences of the failure of manliness for men are also explored. There is Orpheus himself, who renounces all women and devotes himself to his art. He is a narcissistic figure with no interest in action in the world. But his otherworldliness is not entirely contemplative, for his music captivates those who inhabit the earth. Orpheus’ opposite is labour, the men who pull the boat—the human oxen. Their labour is completely profane. Accordingly, they are as trapped in themselves as Orpheus is, each wanting for the other’s dimension. Things are not integrated.

Orpheus lacks the gravitas that is at the core of manliness, the gravity of Homer’s Achilles as he does penance in the last two books of The Iliad, penance for his man-slaughtering excess. Moreover, there is little in his suffering of the Stoic emphasis on embracing fate, learning to love it. Orpheus does not really suffer, he is too insipid for that. His music, in contrast with that of Homer, is therefore unsound, and as Plato asserts, it is right that he meets his doom at the hands of women.

The second projection of Orphic maleness is the naked men bathing, sunning themselves, at idle play. They have withdrawn completely from the company of women, into an idle homosexuality. Their world is a warm enclosure in which they regress to boyhood. Orpheus is minstrel to the renunciation of adult maleness. We recall that Ovid has Orpheus turning into a pedophile.7

Weak men compromise both female and male—with the exception of Poussin’s idealised femininity, which is complete in itself. The social order is also put under threat. Poussin’s evocation is the smoke pouring out of the city. Specifically, the rite of marriage, the sacrament at the core of communal life, is violated, Hymen’s torch smoking, the light extinguished, giving not illumination but sore eyes, streaming with tears.

Nature too is violated. A pair of columns of smoke rise, one from the city of man, the other from the earth. Nature is spewing volcanic fury. Homer established that anger may be evoked symbolically by fumes: ‘that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart’. Here it is Nature’s wrath. Also, the most demonic of underworld creatures, the snake, is set loose by Orpheus’ passivity, his failure to do what he should. With night rushing on, the internal regions erupt. And just as the column of smoke from the city doubles as Hymen’s torch, the volcanic fumes are suggestive of Hades, the underworld inferno which has prematurely snatched Eurydice. Causing one fire, Orpheus will journey futilely to the source of the other.


The only foot in the painting still touched by the sun is the poisoned one. Next to it is the tipped vase, and directly back from there, the fisherman’s bowed rod, also sunlit. Reversing this line of highlights, the eye tracks through the heads of the lounging nymphs to the lyre, on to the face of Orpheus, and ends with the scarlet cape hanging on the tree. Among the dominant features in the foreground also belong the faces of Eurydice and the standing nymph, and the marriage altar on the knoll. Whichever line one takes through them the eye ends in the red cape.

A full understanding of the scarlet cape is not possible until a mystery has been solved: Why Orpheus has two quivers and no bow? Does one of the quivers belong to someone else? Even a man whose vocation is that of hunter, Orion, in Poussin’s later landscape with him blind, and mocked by Diana, has only one quiver strapped to his side. And he does carry a bow, as does Diana, goddess of the hunt.

The key to the mystery is the lyre. It is shaped like a bow bent round on itself, or alternatively the top halves of two bows, connected in the middle. Also it has strings. It is Orpheus’ bow. Poussin will repeat this doubling up in one of his last works, The Misfortunes of Apollo, in which he paints the god looking very much like an older version of Orpheus, his son. Apollo has let his own lyre slip, his arrows are being stolen by Mercury, and there is no sign of his bow.


As Orpheus plucks at the lyre’s strings with both hands it shoots its arrows. They are of two types, hence the two quivers. There are Cupid’s arrows, those of love, that have pierced the heart of Eurydice. They come from the lower quiver, which is linked to the vase of flowers next to it. These arrows give life, colour, blossom, leading to marriage and new birth.


The upper quiver contains arrows that kill. Orpheus is a Siren, destroying whomever human he seduces with his song. The pairings recur, firstly in the other vase, which is knocked over: Eurydice is already dying. Some women who are drawn to him and survive will become barren and rancorous. As the myth conceives it, once they let go, releasing their pent-up bitter fury, they will be punished. Bacchus turns them into trees and forsakes them—no more Dionysian revelling, with eros metamorphosed into wood. And meanwhile Orpheus himself is killed and his lyre/bow smashed. As Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey have pointed out, in relation to Poussin’s Mars and Venus, the two-edged metaphor of the weapons of death and life is ‘one of the most familiar clichés of ancient literature.’8

The line of the upper quiver is echoed in the splintered branch. The lower quiver is parallel to the lower section of the other branch, that of life. A further pairing of opposites is the two scarlet capes. The one across Orpheus’ lap is coloured with Cupid’s passion, linked with the artful hands that create the haunting music. Its folds move freely, from one of the arms that control the hands which caress the strings on down between the minstrel’s legs. The source of the surge of music, in its scarlet wooing, is phallic. The second cape is red with spilled blood, the blood of the dead, the dying, and the living dead. Pinned to the tree by the upper quiver, it is a shroud.


The red shroud dominates the painting. The lake is still, and the people, their city, and nature are set around it, but it is a cold and pallid calm. The figures in the scene are all frozen, as if life has just ceased for an instant, as when the music stops during a children’s game, or during a heart attack. Yet the one true stillness in the painting is the shroud. It has presence, the sole authority here. It is in the shape of a hood, with the face absent. It belongs to Orpheus, or rather to his ghost. Death rules.

Poussin so positions the two red capes that, looking at them with half-closed eyes, it is as if the lower one is the legs, the upper one the arms and head, of a crimson spectre, the ethereal shadow that stalks this scene, yet the one figure with vitality in this faded, drained world, the one effective counterpoint to the hard black of the night that is taking over, which it faces.

The shroud hovers up and back from the head of the singing minstrel. Already he is not of the earth, and the presiding force is that of the underworld, a shimmering crimson born of the black which is about to annihilate the human. No wonder Nature is in outrage!
Orpheus’ actual head will be pitched into the lake still singing, a hideous parody of his power to tame lions, in itself a rancorous image of an emasculated order—for what sort of lion is a tame one? The snake in the picture is not finished with its poison. It merges with the night, Eurydice recoils from both, and towards the open arms of the shroud of death, as it rears into life. All but one figure in the painting is under the thrall of the crimson shroud.

The exception is the fisherman. He is the only person to observe the snakebite. He has a simple, open face, like Eurydice. He may well represent sane, ordinary humanity, absorbed in its daily mundane activity, in this case fishing. The Choruses of Aeschylus and Sophocles had prayed for mediocrity, to avoid wealth, power, and glory and thereby the curse that fate inflicts on those who rise too high. Poussin may have had sympathy for this view—a fisherman in his late work, Autumn, is most plausibly read in a similar way, free from any great worldly or spiritual ambitions. The observer in Orpheus leans away from the horror, as if to escape contamination—the viewer is invited to join him in recoil.


* * *
Orpheus and Eurydice is usually dated at around 1650. There are strong signs in other works in the three or so years from 1648 of Poussin’s concern at the power of women and the absence of adequate men. This is notably so in four of his major paintings, Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well (1648), Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (dated in a lost letter to 1648), The Judgment of Solomon (1649), and the Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651). The same theme is present, but not to the same overwhelming degree, in other periods—Cropper and Dempsey read the much earlier Mars and Venus in terms of an impotent ‘femininized’ Mars and a commanding Venus.9

In the Eliezer and Rebecca in the Louvre, there are thirteen women and one man, Isaac’s servant who has gone to find his master a suitable bride. Poussin shows Eliezer choosing Rebecca, in a parallel, as critics have pointed out, to the Annunciation. But this Rebecca is no Mary, meekly and reverently accepting her call. The Old Testament story itself would suggest modesty and joy at providential news. Poussin has his central figure with right hand on breast, a gesture of humility, and left hitching her dress in a hint of a curtsy, to indicate deference. But these moves are staged. Rebecca is cool and distant, acting out her response. Her face and her stance show composure and aloofness. She is unmoved, except in her own power. It is Eliezer who is in awe, carrying out his mission with an inspired sense of its sacred portent. In fact he is duped, prefiguring the way that Isaac, when old and blind, will be duped by his wife, Rebecca, in league with his younger son, Jacob, deceiving his father to gain the elder brother’s inheritance. In the painting, a trio of women on the right look on, themselves nonchalantly distant, mixing jealousy, rancour and curiosity with a disdain for men.

There is no Orpheus figure in Rebecca. Poussin’s focus is narrower, on the power of women, and their capacity for cold-blooded and devious calculation.
On the surface, the women are all great beauties. In reality, they are Sirens, alluring foolish men. Rebecca’s look is plainly mean. This theme is more explicit in the Snake Landscape, now in London. In the foreground a giant python has wrung a young man to death. A second man running past looks on and is virtually paralysed in mid-stride with horror. A woman kneeling by a roadway responds to his terror, raising her arms in surprise and sympathy—she cannot see the green corpse and its killer. Behind her is a deep, luminous landscape, as beautiful as Poussin ever painted. The fleeing man finds succour in the companionship offered by the unknown woman, making his horror bearable, and opening up to him the mystical serenity of the world beyond her. However, she is unconsciously linked with the gigantic python, and the corpse shadows the man running, having a similar posture. Female charity devours men, encircling them in its powerful coils and squeezing them to death. Here is a daunting ambivalence: through women, and in their maternal role, is the way to sublime order, and fulfilment on earth, but that way is deadly. So the man is paralyzed in mid-stride, his left hand raised to ward off the compassion of the woman, his fantasy to join the all-male group lounging behind her. In the canvas the symbols of male are weak, those of female strong.

The dread of women reaches its climax in the 1649 work in the Louvre, The Judgment of Solomon. Again the problem is the potency of unchecked female instincts. In Rebecca they are Machiavellian, in the Snake Landscape they crush and devour, and in Orpheus, once they become frustrated, they turn bestial. In Solomon, Poussin polarizes the female into good and evil, with the true mother screaming her outrage that her baby could be killed, and the bad mother, a witch whose passion is envious hatred—if my baby has died, you will lose yours too. Poussin seeks a man with enough authority, a powerful enough presence, to keep these women in check. He postulates Solomon, in his wise kingship. He decks him in grand monarchical power, seating him on a gold throne high above the people, flanking him with massive stone columns, clothing him in a voluminous and vivid red cape, having him sit bolt upright, with a fixed and determined look, and finally having him gesture assertively, his left hand to quell the fiercely malevolent woman, the right pointing in judgment at the contested infant. However, he is no match for the women, and especially the

encompassing maternal passion of the good mother. Solomon looks like a boy out of his depth. The exaggerated assertiveness of his gestures gives away that he is insecure. So even here Poussin fails in his ambition to create a convincing image of male authority. Strong men elude him. Such is the withering power of women, of the tempestuous blast of their fury.

Orpheus is echoed in a fourth major work from this period, the Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe of 1651. Here the Orpheus figure is Pyramus, who also has little faith: seeing a blood-stained cloak, he jumps to the conclusion that his beloved has been killed by a lion—symbol of a real man. He kills himself, with a strange eagerness. Poussin shows him as luxuriatingly spreadeagled, as if enjoying his martyrdom, his escape. Thisbe, finding his corpse, is horrified, and her horror is genuine. She looks like Poussin’s Eurydice. Indeed strong similarities between the figures strengthen the case for a 1651 dating for Orpheus. Both works show innocent and devoted women destroyed by their feeble lovers. They are not Rebecca. The Orpheus suggests, however, that even if they do not turn into Rebeccas, the psychopathology of this male-female impasse will in the end produce dominating and rancorous women.

In Pyramus and Thisbe, a gale whips through the landscape, and a lion runs riot, although it is about to be speared—the end of manliness. But there is a haunting beauty here in the tempests of Nature that anticipates Winter. Also a lake at the centre of the work is calm and serene. Thus a Stoicism prevails: if you are wise enough to withstand a cruel fortune, one compounded by your own tangled instincts, cowardice, and sheer bad judgment, then a terrible, luminous beauty is to be seen. That beauty is not present in Orpheus.

Before leaving associated paintings it is worth noting that Manet’s famous and controversial Picnic on the Grass, of 1863, is a footnote to Poussin’s Orpheus. It explicitly reworks the same theme, although more narrowly, having weak male desire turn the woman into an object, one that has the pallid chalky skin and empty stare of a corpse. She kicks over the picnic basket, in a gesture borrowed from Eurydice and the vase of flowers—with the same positioning of basket and vase, and same colours of fruit and flowers. There is no music, however, in the modern version. Manet would have had ample opportunity to study Poussin’s work in the Louvre.

Why choose Orpheus ahead of the other paintings just mentioned? Rebecca is a superior work in its glorious portraiture of women. The Snake Landscape is a superior work as landscape: the viewer may enter a sublime order in a way he can in no other work by Poussin apart from his Diogenes, and only imperfectly in the greatest landscapes by Cézanne. The Solomon is a superior work in its perfect structure, the economy of forces governed by the three principal figures. Bellori reported this as Poussin’s own favourite canvas, a judgment, if true, in its stress on form, that Henry James, the later master judge of his own creations in these terms, would have approved of. Finally, Pyramus and Thisbe is a superior work in its projection of misfortune, that blind madwoman, into a world torn apart by tempest, in which the viewer can feel the hair-raising gale. All four paintings, however, are partial or flawed. A complete vision is lacking. Rebecca is too one- dimensional. The Snake Landscape has its sublime upper world compromised by an almost pathological dread of women. Solomon fails in its ambition. Pyramus and Thisbe is loose in its narrative threads, with all its strength displaced into the elements. In short, this period is one of knotted genius, in which only Orpheus presents the complete theory that hounds Poussin. And it does leave both a compelling image, that of the ghostly crimson shroud, and the most comprehensive and rigorously dark picture of the human condition in the entire work.

The large question that remains unanswered is why Poussin, at the height of his powers, should have become preoccupied by the power of women. Male-female is an enduring minor theme throughout his work: it took centre-stage between 1648 and 1651. This is the period in which he reached the summit of his technique as a painter, before the corrosions of age began to bite—in his case to the point that in the last years he could hardly write a letter, because of trembling hands. Poussin has also reached the metaphysical heights, with the accumulating wisdom of the Ashdod boy, the quite different and tragic Confirmation boys, the saving grace of Matthew, and the Stoic Christianity of Phocion. But just as the vision approaches completion the golden bowl cracks.

And how it cracks! The Ashdod boy is replaced by a seducer, fixated in childhood, whose spirit sends those who come under its influence mad, then destroys them. Community degenerates into brute labour, childlike homosexual play, and isolated and resentful women. Marriage is profaned. The courage of Phocion and the dignity of his wife are gone. The city of man is in flames, and nature erupts.

There are no biographical clues as to what has happened. It is not a case of misogyny. There is no trace of woman-hatred in Poussin. Rebecca luxuriates in female beauty. Eurydice is a picture of virginal innocence, and the Marys of Ashdod and the Red Sea are exemplars of the sacred force of female vocation. The Mary Magdalene of the second Penance is a tribute to a full-blooded earthy woman, as even more so is the Mary of the London Annunciation. Indeed none of the Old Masters, not even Raphael or Titian, have celebrated the entire gamut of female sensibility, its powers and virtues, as comprehensively as Poussin.

1648-51 is also the time of the Louvre Self-Portrait. The four-year period opens with Phocion and ends with Orpheus and Pyramus. The human world centres on male-female. Balance is all, but it is precarious, a most unstable equilibrium at the best. The ideal is the massive figure of Phocion, matched by the devotion of his wife. She is a rock, steady in her mission, which becomes a joy. With her there is gravity—things do not topple over. When men are not the size of Phocion they are turned into boys, like Solomon, stunned by tidal female passion. Women may be good or evil. There are also women who are less forbidding than the scheming Rebecca or the Solomon mothers, those like Eurydice and Thisbe, destroyed in their innocence by elusive feeble men. Poussin in 1650 shows himself aspiring to fill the sandals of Phocion, but just surviving the onslaught of his own female demon/muse, as projected in his Louvre Self-Portrait. He can, at best, barely control her.

Poussin’s control depends in good part on his art. It is through his vocation as painter that he gains strength and poise. Yet, in this period, he questions the redemptive possibilities of art. Orpheus lacks a redemptive dimension, making it out of character with his greatest works. Within the painting, Orpheus’ own music is to be avoided, like that of the Sirens. Orpheus is one of Plato’s men who were so infatuated by their own music that they forgot to eat, and were turned into cicadas (Phaedrus, 259). He is not of the earth, his body a mere hollow shell. His music is an escape from life, incompatible with it, an unnatural addiction that leads to violation of the human order. Poussin’s message is to stay away from Orpheus, and his type of music. Orpheus is a cicada.

When music is the sublimation of thwarted instincts beware! One alternative, in the ancient Greek perception, was the Bull of Phalaris. Phalaris was a tyrant who had a hollow bronze bull built. He would lock his victims inside and light a fire underneath. A reed set in the mouth transformed the screams into the most hauntingly beautiful music. This is Aeschylus’ ‘grace comes somehow violent’, and it is Homer’s Iliad. It is also the Ashdod boy and Phocion. Phocion as man is such a strong valorous presence in life that his tragedy resonates with a music in tune with the higher orders, one to which his wife responds. Even the Thracian maidens would, in experiencing the raw nerve of frustrated eros, be soothed by this music, becoming calm.


* * *
The red shroud is not the key to the painting, in spite of its certain still, haunting beauty, a beauty which echoes in the landscape. It is rather the sublimation of a detail that can only be made out from up close.10 What we had taken to be the golden hair, soft pale skin, and sensitive features of Apollo in the minstrel, is not. What is, is a mouth in which there are only two teeth, both upper, and set apart in the position of canines, with a black gap where the incisors should be. The teeth are long and protruding. In fact, they are fangs. Orpheus is himself the snake, with hollow fangs dripping poison. They are bared as in the snarl of attack by a beast of prey. His crime is not simply the passive one of weak desire. He is an active killer, of women. His turning around on the way up from the underworld had been deliberate.11

The youthful, sensitive face on the instant turns hideous. Further, the front set of the fangs means that the upper lip protrudes diagonally forward from the nostrils. At the second viewing it is the upper mouth of a skull. Orpheus is Death, and far more explicitly than the earlier reading allowed. He is ghastly.

The horrible imagery reverberates through the canvas. Orpheus’ robe mixes the green of the grass with the yellow of the arid soil on the mound and the lurid colour of a decomposing body. The lyre is shaped at its base like the coil of a snake, with suitable markings, and its two arms curve upwards in the motion of a pair of striking vipers. Poussin even puts sharp tips on the ends of each of these arms, as fangs, ivory-coloured—Orpheus’ own teeth are not pointed. The twin fangs of the lyre are set in the horizontal adjacent to Orpheus’ teeth, amplifying them. He bites through them. The whole lyre is a blown-up caricature of Orpheus’ mouth, the organ of his killer song.

The actual snake in the painting is not a python, as in most of Poussin’s other images of deadly snakes. The giant python, in its crushing and devouring, is a female projection. Here it is a snake that rears up and bites, a male projection—Orpheus himself. The work reads like a later, companion elaboration to the Snake Landscape, much darker, and with the central inversion from crushing femininity to a poisonous man.

Directly above the head of Orpheus, on the other side of the lake, are the homosexual men. Their play is not as idle as previously assumed. All are naked. One bends over forwards, ostentatiously baring his rear. Sitting under him another leans forward to touch the buttocks of a man standing in front of him, with arms extended—perhaps in the act of diving into the lake, but he is too far from the edge for that. It appears rather as if he is gesturing to embrace a naked man in the stern of the cargo boat, who similarly extends his arms towards him. So, even the men at work are split between brute labour and homosexual embrace. This is bitter commentary by Poussin. The man baring his anus does so at the gesturing man in the boat.

Thus starting with Orpheus there is a circle of tarnished maleness, his own first affinity with the gay men, living free from women. They are linked through the two gesturing figures to the human oxen, brute masculinity. The ropes on their boat reflect the fishing line, thus bringing the circle back to Orpheus.


There are also links with the standing woman. Her garland includes red flowers, the red of the blood she will spill. As Orpheus’ music resonates out from the lyre her rancour shoots back at him. In one guise she is the fanged female-shaped instrument, the agent of his destruction. She represents the berserk Thracian maidens, as Poussin completes the story.

But Orpheus plays the most beautiful music. How can that be? Is this Poussin echoing the ancient Greek wisdom of Silenus? Silenus was the old lecher, bloated with drunken gorging, companion of Bacchus, painted by the Old Masters as a revolting mass of red blotched blubber, reeling around groping at young women. Rubens has him in the midst of being buggered by a black African.12 Yet the Greek Silenus knew great secrets: indeed, Socrates was sometimes identified with him, in part because of their common ugliness.

Is Poussin, then, not only warning about Orpheus’ music, but also endorsing the archaic classical view that seeing the truth is unnatural; more, it is a crime against nature? It goes with tortured instincts. This is quite different from the Bull of Phalaris, for here art kills. It is as if the Master is taunting the viewer: Are you deeply moved by the beauty of my works, are you inspired by the truths I teach you, if so then look again, and recognise the deeper truth, that the sources of my work are in Orpheus, and he is a loathsome man, killer of innocence, and a deliberate and sadistic one. Pity me, and pity yourself for being drawn to my song. He underlines the specific teaching of Silenus, as Nietzsche would later underline it: the best thing for man is not to be born, but if you are, then second best is to die soon.

A personal link with Orpheus is possible. Poussin may have caught a venereal disease in his youth, referred to by one of his contemporary biographers as a ‘mal de France’, one which may have been the cause of a prolonged and near fatal illness he suffered in his thirties. Thuillier speculates that it was possibly the reason for his failure to have children. If this is so, then his own poisoned body condemned his wife to childlessness. At the time of Orpheus, Anne-Marie would have been in her late thirties, near the end of her child-bearing potential.13 Orpheus becomes, in part, a caustically critical yet remorseful self-portrait. Moreover, Poussin identified with Apollo, Orpheus’ father and divine alter ego. The painting gains a tragic dimension.

My own hunch is that Orpheus is personal in a different way. It is a confession. Poussin’s vocation was to seek out the higher law, in order to obey it; to find the principles of the good life, in order to follow them. While his Matthew had been called simply to tell the story, in Poussin’s own case the story had to be consonant with his life. Equally, it was from his life that he learned the story. The two were inseparable. His vocation required him to tell the truth, using his particular experience as the key to the universal, and to tell nothing but the truth.

What he found in his mid-fifties was that once the ideal of Phocion and his wife had come to him, and he had gone on to picture it, on the second attempt (The Ashes of Phocion), his own work placed the mirror in front of him, calibrated with categories of the good in terms of which he himself had failed. His initial response to the inner turbulence that was his guilt, still oblivious to its meaning, was the series of bitter projections of male-female strife, in the first instance blaming the excesses of women’s scheming (Rebecca), female hysteria (Solomon) or the crushing maternal embrace (Snake Landscape), and in the second, and closer to home, blaming the limpness of men (Pyramus).

Last in the series, I believe, came Orpheus, his confession that not only was he not Phocion, but that his Self-Portrait of 1650 had been deceitfully flattering to himself. Knowing the law he had broken, revealed to him through his own work, he was forced, in penance, to cry out that he was Orpheus, and look what that means! The particulars must be in relation to his wife, Anne-Marie, the implication that he took flight into his art to escape a more virile engagement with her. What he took flight from was what pitched his other major male figures of this period into a state of dread—scheming women, hysterical in their fury, crushing in their maternal embrace. His failure was in terms of Phocion’s postulated manliness. The honesty of Orpheus is to focus blame back on his own compromised self. Setting the scene loosely in Rome—transparently in defiance of the story—may have been intended as another cue to the work’s autobiographical undercurrent.

My hunch is further that Poussin the man was a mixture of Phocion, the 1650 Self-Portrait, and Orpheus. His confession was to the weak side of his character, the source of his most shameful guilt. The brazen look of his Self-Portrait demon/muse is challenging him to tell the whole truth, or else, and accordingly one aspect of his sheepishness in the portrait is his knowledge that he cannot escape her clear, unblinking eye. She knows him too well.

The confession is oblique. Hardly anyone would ever decipher it. This is private business, the most intimate exposure, about which Poussin can only have been deeply embarrassed. He replaced the secrecy of the Confessional with a narrative labyrinth. The reticence is understandable, for, as his revered Plutarch would stress, it is indecent to exhibit sores in the market-place. Yet some sort of public confession was necessary, in obedience to his vocation, that his life not prove a lie to what he knew. He was after all the man who asserted dryly: ‘I have overlooked nothing.’ So his Orpheus is both brutal in its disclosure, and tactful. It is also as thoroughly intelligent a work as exists in the entire Western canon.

The commanding image in Orpheus and Eurydice is the hideous face. It is more awful than any plain skull. Its pair is the evil mother in Solomon, who lusts to kill the baby. She is the most explicit representation of what humans are capable ever painted by Poussin. Orpheus is her brother, and he succeeds where she fails, for she was countered by the good, which triumphed, whereas he is himself the voice of the sublime.



In Orpheus we are shown the glories of Nature—mountains and sky, a lake, trees, a grassy bank—with the human domain blending in, a great city, labour, leisure, beautiful young women, and all inspired by heavenly music. Even death plays a soft melody, care of the crimson shroud. Yet the source of order here, the giver of life, is the crooning skull, the deadly viper dressed up as a lyre, caressed into sound by the mere minstrel, whose snarling mouth is that of a fanged snake. Never did the black Furies, who themselves wept at his music—now we know why—have a more virulent henchmen on earth. The Underworld has taken over. The wise Silenus was right. It is no longer God’s earth.


1 My reading diverges in its basic argument and much of its detail from the brief essay by Lawrence D. Steefel Jr.: ‘Rereading Poussin’s Orpheus and Eurydice’, Konsthistorisk Tidsskrift LX1 Häfte 1-2, 1992. Sheila McTighe has argued at length that the painting is principally about Orpheus as the ‘great civiliser’, the creator of the city and politics (The Hieroglyphic Landscape: ‘Libertinage’ and the Late Allegories of Nicolas Poussin, Yale University dissertation, 1987, ch. 6). Poussin often painted men of politics, but his rather feminine, other-worldly Orpheus is decidedly not one of them.

2 The identification of this figure with Eurydice is in accord with Walter Friedländer (Nicolas Poussin, London, 1966, p. 180). It is at odds with both Kurt Badt (Die Kunst des Nicolas Poussin, Köln, 1969) and Doris Wild (Nicolas Poussin, Zürich, 1980).

3 Steefel and others take it to be a grain barge (p. 60).

4 Wild, p. 139.

5 John Carroll, ‘What Poussin Knew, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion’, Quadrant, vol. 41, no. 7, July 1997.

6 Some critics have read this figure as Hymen. Friedländer is among them, although he admits that the colour of the mantle is a problem, as Ovid described Hymen wearing a yellow cloak. Both the 1994-5 catalogues of Pierre Rosenberg (Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1994) and Richard Verdi (Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665, Zwemmer, London, 1995) repeat this reading.

7 The identification of Orpheus with homosexuality had already reappeared in the Renaissance. It is a major theme in Poliziano’s pastoral play from 1471-2, Il Favolo di Orfeo. Dürer included an inscription naming him as the first homosexual in a 1494 drawing of the Death of Orpheus.

8 Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey, Nicolas Poussin, Friendship and the Love of Painting, Princeton, 1996, p. 245.

9 Ibid., pp. 216-17.

10 None of Poussin’s major works have suffered as much from critics failing to notice deliberate and explicit details. Blunt’s casual judgment of the painting as a ‘straightforward version of the myth’ is a case in point (Nicolas Poussin, Pallas Athene, London, 1995, p. 286).

11 In Montiverdi’s Orfeo there is some stress on the snake’s fangs—one of the few things Poussin may have taken from this opera, which recounts the conventional love-story, with Orpheus’ weakness attributed to excess of desire for Eurydice. Another minor cue is Montiverdi’s description of Eurydice having three servants. Of deeper possible implication is that the love scene between the king and the queen of the dead is far more poignant than the singing of the two living protagonists.

12 Svetlana Alpers, The Making of Rubens, Yale U. P., New Haven, 1995, ch. 3.

13 Jacques Thuillier, Nicolas Poussin, Fayard, Paris, 1988, p. 105. Howard Hibberd has suggested that the prevalence of babies in Poussin’s work, and especially later on, may reflect a frustrated fatherhood—he did not have children (The Holy Family on the Steps, London, 1974, p. 42). Verdi has linked the fact that a quarter of the surviving canvases include water with a possible desire for purification, due to venereal disease (p. 36).






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