Art of History
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Throughout the history of art, artists turned to a variety of topics to express their ideas on canvas. One of the topics that remain the most popular until now is mythology. In every epoch, there were pictures devoted to certain mythological subjects, and, as a rule, myths of ancient Greece and Rome were taken as a basis. Probably, the reason of continuing interest in mythological subjects is that they are focused on the most common timeless traits of the human nature such as love, hatred, fear, anguish, and betrayal.
One of the paintings of that kind is "Orpheus" by Gustave Moreau, painted in 1865. The oil painting on canvas depicts a young girl holding the dead head of Orpheus and his lyre in her arms. The girl's figure is almost life-sized and it is set against an elaborate Italian landscape. The genre of the painting is symbolism; that is why, on closer inspection, the details that may seem subtle at first glance can help to perceive the picture better. The main emphasis is put on the girl's figure placed in the foreground. Although the female figure is not located exactly in the center of the canvas and is shifted slightly to the left, it is the focal point of the painting. The artist turns the viewer’s attention to her figure by highlighting it with the saturated colors and accurate details of vectorization such as lyre in her arms, her clothing, jewelry, hair, and facial features.
Moreau uses thick rich colors of green, ochre and grayish blue to depict the elegant oriental patterned dress of a girl. Its flower decoration is reprised by the lemons and leaves behind and at left of the figure. The gorgeous lyre of Orpheus in the girl’s hands is implemented in the same way. In fact, these items are especially noticeable when compared with the hushed tones of the background landscape, as if a few blurry, which can be seen from the characteristic brush strokes. Orpheus’ head, on the contrary, though being painted not less carefully, has its facial features that are not as bright and saturated. It seems to be covered by a dim veil. Thus, the artist shows Orpheus belonging to the world of the dead, while the warm and vivid colors of the girl's face and her brightly lit figure symbolize that she belongs to the living. Light and shadow also give semantic value to different areas on the canvas. The entire image can be divided into the light and dark areas that are situated to the right and to the left accordingly. Probably, that can be regarded as a symbol of the living and dead worlds. On the other hand, there may be found some discrepancies that do not seem essential at first sight. First of all, the features of a girl and Orpheus look strangely similar, namely her facial expression with the eyes full of quiet thoughtfulness. There is no grief in the eyes as if she is looking at her own reflection, which does not quite correspond to the thought that she is mourning Euridice. Second of all, the female figure, being well proportioned itself, has too large feet. Additionally, the figures of shepherds on the rocks behind the girl do not correspond to the rules of proportion, being depicted bigger than they should be. The two turtles by the girl's feet may be connected with the legend that Orpheus made his lyre by stringing the empty turtle shell. In general, due to the muted palette, broad strokes and the combination of colors and symbols, this painting makes an impression of a dream-like scene. Gustave Moreau combined reality and bizarre elements, small but significant details which echo the main subject. All these features correspond to the main idea of symbolism, which is to use symbols to represent things, emotions or ideas of the artist and express a meaning through allegory.
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