Louis Français: Orphée, 1863, Öl auf Leinwand, 195 x 130 cm. Inv. Nr. RF 85, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Odilon Redon approached the mythological subject of Orpheus, which was very popular during his time, in a variety of ways. With this pencil drawing the artist has succeeded in creating an unusual and impressive interpretation of the Apollonian singer's despair over the irretrievable loss of his beloved companion, Eurydice.
Orpheus has put his kithara on the ground and is leaning against a tree as if numbed. His crossed and raised arms can be read both as a gesture of despondency and as expressing a defensive desire for protection against a strange event. An insidious wind fills the atmosphere, suggested by the faint horizontal lines and the falling of the occasional leaf. It has swept up Orpheus' cloak with mysterious strength and frozen it to a rock-like formation. Redon's experience enables him to use the sensuous qualities of the pencil here, not only to depict the exciting contrast between fleeting delicacy and motionless petrification. The centre of the cloak, which is more compact closer to his body, also suggests the threatening metamorphosis of the entire figure. The hopelessness of the dramatic situation is reflected in the abandoned singer's wide-open, dark black eyes.
Redon probably had the idea for this artistic equivalent of the profound agony of Orpheus when reading the verses in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' in which the singer did not lose his sense of horror at the death of Eurydice until his nature changed and his body was transformed into stone. Although the literary reference may have inspired the artist to the form and design of his drawing, there is another dramatic correspondence, one to which the artist also draws the viewer's attention. The scattered rocks in the foreground direct the viewer's gaze to a short sequence with the words: "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice. Rien …" ("I have lost my Eurydice. Nothing …"). It is the beginning of the lament of Orpheus from the opera 'Orfeo ed Eurydice' by Ch. W. Gluck. Redon had had close contact with music since his youth; here, he succeeds impressively in creating an equivalent in drawing of the intensive emotionality of this aria.
For Odilon Redon, the pencil drawing continued to retain its importance throughout his lifetime, together with charcoal drawing, lithograph, pastel and painting. It permitted him to model imaginative pictorial worlds without material description, while nonetheless arousing the impression of organically evolved forms, and ensuring that we never forget the artist's focus on visible reality.