ART MUSE LOS ANGELES: THE GREATER MUSEUM OF LA
Art Muse Los Angeles becomes our Orphic guide to “the Greater Museum of L.A.” This online map helps Angelenos discover the astonishingly rich and fascinating works of art found within our museums, galleries and public spaces that reveal facets of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Paintings and sculptures are paired with poetry, facts and musical excerpts across the city’s landscape. You will want to look twice and thrice, if not backwards too, at the numerous works of art that illustrate the myth’s enduring power to enchant us.
In the ancient world, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, like those of Apollo and Daphne or Pluto and Proserpine, helped people to understand the world around them, their place within it, and the unpredictable presence and actions of the gods. The beautiful nymph Eurydice is the wife of Orpheus, the magical singer-poet. These two complex and compelling characters have inspired the human imagination for over a thousand years. Stories of their love, loss, and undying lament have been passed down for generations, from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages to modern Europe and contemporary America.
Art works that celebrate these star-crossed lovers can be found in a number of Los Angeles museums. This online guide encourages art lovers to take a virtual or real-time tour of “the Greater Museum of LA,” following the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice and their cohorts through sculpture found in certain museum collections.
Huntington Library, Gardens and Art Galleries
Our tour begins at the Huntington in San Marino where a monumental sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice is nestled in a woodland garden adjacent to the mansion. In the early decades of the 20th century, Henry Huntington amassed a large collection of outdoor statuary, much of which relates to themes of love and classical mythology. He personally chose the precise locations for many of the artworks in the gardens. The manner in which these large-scale stone sculptures have been incorporated into the landscape is reminiscent of prominent European gardens, such as those at the Palace of Versailles in France and the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy.
Orpheus and Euridice
Lorenzo Mattielli, Italian, 1678-1748
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
This sculpture of Orpheus and Euridice is located on the North Vista outside the Huntington Art Gallery (the former residence of Henry and Arabella Huntington). Orpheus is identified by the ornate lyre at his feet. He is depicted struggling to retrieve his wife from the Underworld after she died when bitten by a snake. According to the myth, Orpheus impressed the gods of the Underworld (Proserpine and Pluto) with his music so deeply that he would be allowed to bring Euridice back to the land of the living. The only condition was that he not look at her until they had both exited Hades. But just before she reached the threshold, Orpheus turned towards Eurydice and she was pulled back to the Underworld.
The sculpture shows Orpheus as he struggles to hold onto his wife. Swirling drapery and billowing clouds add drama to the scene, and they also add structural support, which enables the figure of Euridice to be elevated above her husband. Her placement creates a dynamic composition of diagonals and brings about a strong sense of movement within the artwork. Eurydice gazes at Orpheus in their final moment together. Tragically, she is about to be pulled from him and never again allowed in the land of the living.
“He stretched out his arms, eager to catch her or to feel her clasp;
but, unhappy one, he clasped nothing but the yielding air.”
Metamorphoses Book X, 58-59
Eurydice fades back into the underworld: “And now,
dying a second time…She spake one last farewell which scarcely
reached her husband’s ears, and fell back again to the place
whence she had come”
Metamorphoses Book X, 60-63
Chauncey Bradley Ives, 1810-1894
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Art illustrating numerous Greco-Roman myths can be found inside the galleries as well as throughout the gardens of the Huntington. To offer another aspect of the female presence in ancient myth, we included a stop to view a marble sculpture of Pandora. The story of Pandora also illustrates the unpredictable actions of the gods. The gods tested both Pandora and Orpheus by prohibiting something so seemingly minor that they either forgot this detail or couldn’t resist defying it precisely because it seemed so otherwise inconsequential. Their actions were split-second, but with tremendous consequences-- Pandora simply opened the small box, while Orpheus took a quick glance backward at his beloved Eurydice. Pandora, by Chauncey Bradley Ives, is located in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. Ives spent much of his career in Rome where he specialized in portraiture and mythological subjects.
Pandora is among his most beloved sculptures. The figure embodies serenity and beauty, but her tale is one of tragedy and destruction. According to the ancient Greek myth, Pandora was the first woman. She was created to punish mankind because Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods and given it to mere mortals. The gods gave Pandora a jar or small box, called a “pithos” in Greek, and instructed her never to open it. Unable to contain her curiosity, she eventually removed the lid, thereby releasing evils, illnesses, and hardships into the world. By the time she closed the container, the only thing trapped in the box was hope.
At first glance Pandora is no different than many other Neoclassical nudes. But once viewers are aware of the figure’s identity, the sculpture becomes charged with meaning. Tension and anticipation mount as viewers realize that the young woman’s curiosity has gotten the better of her. The artist makes his audience witnesses to the final moments of innocence, as disastrous consequences for all of humanity are soon to follow.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
The founder of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hubert Eaton, intentionally transformed the Forest Lawn Cemetery into a parkland of verdant nature to inspire happy memories. The pastoral setting of the memorial park is intended to resemble a vision of paradise rather than a place to contemplate earthly death. We feel Forest Lawn is a perfect setting to imagine the musician Orpheus strolling the hills, singing, and searching for his young wife Eurydice.
Founded in 1906, Forest Lawn has been commissioning sculpture for over a century. Among the first institutions in Southern California to offer free public art, Forest Lawn’s original aim was to recreate a version of the European Grand Tour that would be accessible to people on the West Coast. Many of their artworks are full-scale replicas of classical, Renaissance, or Neoclassical sculptures, and they often depict events from Greco-Roman mythology.
Apollo and Daphne
Galleria Pietro Bazzanti & Figlio (Florence)
After original by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1625)
Apollo is closely linked to both Orpheus and Eurydice. Apollo was the god of music and poetry, and Orpheus was a poet and musician. According to some accounts, Orpheus is the son of Apollo and Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. In other versions of the myth, Eurydice is the daughter of Apollo.
Both Apollo and Orpheus had troubled love lives. Orpheus struggled to bring his wife, Eurydice, back from Hades, while in this artwork Apollo’s love is unrequited. Apollo chases Daphne, a nymph and daughter of a river god, because he has been struck by Cupid’s arrow. As Daphne flees she prays that her father can save her from Apollo. Her father obliges, turning Daphne into a laurel tree. Here is a myth of alienation that is a counterpart to the myth of adoration seen in Orpheus and Eurydice; especially interesting is that the woman has to pay for the infatuation of the man no matter whether his attraction is true love or mere lust. This artwork depicts the moment of her transformation. Viewers can circle the sculpture and observe how her skin turns to bark, while leaves sprout from her fingertips and roots grow from her toes.
Forest Lawn’s Apollo and Daphne is a full-scale marble replica of a sculpture by the famed Baroque artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The original was completed in 1625, and it is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Forest Lawn’s copy was sculpted in 1938 by artists from Galleria Pietro Bazzanti & Figlio, a studio and gallery in Florence that was founded in the early nineteenth century. The outdoor setting of Forest Lawn’s Apollo and Daphne is suitable for this pastoral subject. The dramatic narrative imagined in the artwork appears to be unfolding in the woodland landscape at Forest Lawn.
Frilli Gallery (Florence)
After originals by Antonio Canova (c. 1815)Thalia, Euphrosyne, and Aglaea, better known as the Three Graces, are the daughters of Jupiter and companions to the Muses. According to some mythological accounts, they are sisters of Orpheus. Unlike their brother, though, they escape the tragedy that heterosexual love can entail by staying true to the chaste love that they have for each other. Each of the three figures embodies a different trait. One personifies youth and beauty, another mirth and merriment, and the third embodies elegance and splendor. They are common figures not only in mythology, but also in art. A surviving fresco from ancient Pompeii shows the women standing arm in arm, and the Renaissance painter Raphael rendered them in a similarly intertwined manner.
Antonio Canova, the Italian Neoclassical artist, sculpted two copies of the Three Graces. Both were executed in the early nineteenth century, and one copy is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London while another is in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Forest Lawn’s copy was sculpted by artists from the Frilli Gallery in Florence, which was founded in 1860 and is still in operation today. The full-scale marble copy was completed in 1926 and it stands outside of the Great Mausoleum. The figures embrace and appear to whisper to one another, but there is no clear narrative. Instead, the artwork is a meditation on poise and beauty, as well as artistic skill. In Canova’s originals and in Forest Lawn’s copy, three interlocking figures were sculpted from a single block of marble, which is an impressive feat that requires complete mastery of the medium. Proceed into the Great Mausoleum and take the stairs down to the Poets’ Corridor, where there is a second copy of the Three Graces.
J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center
European art from the Middle Ages to Modernism is central to the museum collection on view at the Getty Center. A particular strength of the collection is art produced in the 17th and 18th centuries for the French kings, Louis XIV and XV. Mythological scenes of abduction would have titillated elite European patrons who found it improper to look upon such imagery without the guise of classical legend. Scenes of love, lust and the journey through the liminal space between earth and the Underworld delighted the artistic imagination. In a number of myths nature becomes a central character in the human drama: it is a backdrop where human dreams and nightmares are projected; life-stages are comparable to the seasons.
Pluto Abducting Proserpine
François Girardon (French, 1628 - 1715)
Bronze, probably cast about 1693-1710
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Here the loss of love that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice entails is counter-manded by the tragedy of Prosperine’s abduction due to the whims of Cupid and the unpredictable love of Pluto. According to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, the earth’s change of seasons can be explained by the aftermath of Pluto Abducting Proserpine. Proserpine was held captive in the underworld until her father Jupiter, king of the gods, intervened. The conditions of her ransom permitted Proserpine to return to earth and her mother Ceres, goddess of agriculture, for several months each year, but Proserpine had to return to the realm of Pluto, god of the Underworld, during the winter. In lament for the seasonal loss of her daughter, Ceres’ crops perished in winter, blooming only with the reappearance of Proserpine each spring.
Girardon captures the drama and struggle of Proserpine’s abduction in this spiraling composition. Best admired by walking around the sculpture, the viewer encounters Proserpine helplessly flailing as Pluto takes firm hold of her. Meanwhile a nymph attempts to intercede on Proserpine’s behalf but is nearly trampled as Pluto strides forth with the young woman as his plunder. The figures each gesture wildly, creating strong diagonal lines that enliven the agitation of the scene. Their swirling drapery and writhing musculature further animate this intense moment of transition from the earth to the underworld.
Proserpine became queen of the Underworld. She met Orpheus when he descended to find Eurydice. The music Orpheus sang to Proserpine and Pluto convinced them to let him lead her back to the earth. But, as we know, the condition to not look at his love until they had reached the light of the world was not met and he lost Eurydice, a second time, to death and the Underworld.
Girardon’s bronze figural group is a small-scale cast of a monumental marble sculpture that once stood in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. Louis XIV chose this subject not only for its provocative nature, but also to demonstrate his intellectual connection to the cultures of the Greco-Roman past, a golden era to which he believed himself a successor. Many copies of Pluto Abducting Proserpine were produced as souvenirs for 18th century courtiers eager to align themselves with kingly taste. Girardon’s bronze is found in the South Pavilion, gallery 102, a small tabletop version can be also be found in the South Pavilion, gallery 104.
Ledoux Paneled Room
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (French, 1736 - 1806)
Painted and gilded oak; painted and gilded plaster; white marble; modern gilt-bronze hardware; modern mirror glass, about 1790-1795
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Imagine entering this magnificent neoclassical reception room from a garden. And then imagine seeing it in candlelight as the mirrored walls reflect the flickering light and gold trim to create the illusion of an endless columned arcade. The theme of nature pervades architect Ledoux’s salon de compagnie (reception room). Symbolic references to the four seasons celebrate nature’s cycle and allude to the ancient story of Proserpine to explain the seasonal shifts. The panel in the southwest corner depicts a smoking brazier indicating winter while another panel shows stalks of wheat to reference a summer harvest. On the other side of the room, a basin of grapes connotes autumn and a vessel teeming with flowers in the northeast corner illustrates spring.
Ledoux’s team of artists drew inspiration from archaeological excavation to ornament the room with extensive Greco-Roman design elements. Several decades before Ledoux designed this room, the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii were rediscovered in the Bay of Naples. Because the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD had buried these cities under volcanic ash, archaeologists of the 18th century encountered remarkably well-preserved remnants of Roman life. The discoveries piqued the interests of contemporary artists and patrons while also reviving a fascination with ancient literature, theatre and even Greco-Roman ideals for systems of government. Referred to as the “Enlightenment,” the 18th century embraced as a sign of erudition the study of the aesthetics and values entombed in these ancient cities.
As learned-guests explored the design scheme in Ledoux’s paneled room, they would immediately recognize the mythical hybrid creatures from precedents found in ancient grottoes. Visitors would likewise be able to identify the deities and heroes shown in the roundels at the base of each door. There is one scene that again evokes the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here the sun god Apollo is pictured with his golden lyre, an instrument he teaches Orpheus how to play and later gifts to Orpheus. Orpheus ultimately takes the lyre to the Underworld, using his musical prowess to tame beasts and monsters as he passes and to soften the hearts of Pluto and Proserpine when he asks for the release of Eurydice.
The room was commissioned for the Paris residence of a wealthy sugar plantation owner from Santo Domingo. Monsieur Hosten enjoyed this well-appointed mansion only briefly, as the French Revolution forced him to flee in 1795. His home was later demolished but the magnificent interior by Ledoux was disassembled and stored for safekeeping. It is something of miracle of history that it survives!
Set in a canyon near Malibu on the Pacific Coast, the Getty Villa is a recreation of the ancient seaside Villa dei Papiri, which was preserved in volcanic ash near Herculaneum. Inspired by archaeological excavations there, the Getty Villa houses the museum’s premier collection of Mediterranean antiquities. The spirits of Eurydice, Orpheus, Proserpine, and Apollo, among other gods, inhabit the halls and gardens of the Getty Villa. Here the selected objects reveal information about Orpheus and his knowledge of the Underworld and ancient Greek and Roman beliefs and anxieties about the afterlife.
Sculptural Group of a Seated Poet and Sirens
350 – 300 B.C.
Terracotta with white slip of calcium carbonate and polychromy (orange-gold, black, red, gold-yellow, brown, pink)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California
In this sculptural ensemble, a seated figure, once holding a lyre, is flanked by two fantastical creatures. The standing figures are sirens -- mythical women with the legs of birds that lived on small rocky islands where they sang dangerously beautiful songs. Here the three figures are linked by tilting heads and arm gestures, as the two Sirens lean towards the seated man to contemplate his music. The musician’s lips are slightly parted as though he were reciting a song-poem while playing the instrument.
Firing such large terracotta sculptures required incredible technical skill. Vent holes that would release heat and pressure while the objects were in the kiln can be found at the base of the Sirens and in the seat of the male figure. Note the detail of these nearly life-size statues; even some of the delicate tendrils of their hair have survived more than two millennia. Originally, they would have been colorfully painted. In fact, conservators have examined surviving fragments of pigment to determine the colors of red, yellow, white and rose used on the three figures. The choice to sculpt this monumental ensemble in terracotta was likely due to the abundance of clay in the region and an absence of viable stone in Southern Italy, probably it was made in Taras.
Some scholars have interpreted the central figure as Orpheus because of the musical instrument he once cradled in his lap and the relationship of his story to that of Jason and the Argonauts. In this ancient legend, Orpheus was called upon to use his musical prowess to protect Jason and the Argonauts from an otherwise certain death at the hands of the Sirens as the sailors passed their rocky island home. The irresistible song of the Sirens was said to drive passing sailors to shipwreck, but Orpheus’ unrivaled skill with his lyre drowned out their enchanting melody and saved the seamen.
Orpheus’ facility with the lyre was renowned. His entrancing power as singer-poet had allowed him safe passage to visit and return from the Underworld. On his journey into the Underworld to rescue Eurydice, his music had enchanted Pluto and Proserpine. Yet he was unable to save his beloved due to his human instinct to look back. In the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus uses his exceptional powers as a musician to save the lives of the sailors. While it cannot be said for sure whether the identity of the sculpted player of the lyre is indeed Orpheus, the likelihood of this is great based on the hero’s associations with music and his role as a guide to the afterlife.
Tablet with Instructions for the Deceased in the Underworld
Greek. 350–300 B.C.
7/8 × 1 7/16 × 1/16 in.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California
The Underworld for ancient Greeks was generally thought to be a place of darkness that was absent of life’s pleasures. Speculation about what the afterlife might offer entered into the stories told from generation to generation, and exceptional sinners might suffer perpetual tortures, while only a special few could attain an eternal paradise. To ensure a better life in the hereafter, some individuals sought spiritual guidance through religious practice and devotion to leaders who might offer knowledge and direction.
On his erstwhile mission to retrieve his wife Eurydice, Orpheus was one of the few mortal visitors to the Underworld who returned to the world above. He descended to recover his dead bride Eurydice, and, through the power of his song, persuaded Pluto and Proserpine to let her go. Famously, he neglected their sole instruction—not to look back—and lost her forever. Nevertheless, his journey and his ability to charm the gods meant that he was celebrated as an expert on the Underworld. This knowledge, combined with his skills as a poet and musician, established Orpheus as a spiritual leader. By the 5th century B.C., esoteric religious cults dedicated to the memory of Orpheus were claimed to have clandestine knowledge of the surest path to happiness in the hereafter.
The cult of Orpheus is shrouded in mystery, so the precise nature of its activities remains largely unknown; however, some evidence of the cult practices survives in the form of the Orphic tablets. These are paper-thin, hammered sheets of gold. Originally deposited in graves, each sheet is incised with information needed for the deceased’s passage to the next life. Sometimes the tablets bore instructions for physically navigating the path to the Underworld while in other instances they are written as letters of introduction in hopes of securing the deceased a privileged position in the hereafter. The example in the Getty Villa’s collection takes the form of a poetic dialogue between the Orphic initiate and a spring in the Underworld. Thirsting, the deceased requests to drink from the waters, claiming special “heavenly” status.
The Lamella Orphica is found at the Villa in gallery 109A.
Here is a translation of the dialogue between the dead initiate and a spring in the Underworld:
(Initiate): I am parched with thirst and perishing!
(Spring): Then come drink of me, the Ever-Flowing Spring. On the right there is a bright cypress. Who are you? Where are you from?
(Initiate): I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven. But my race is heavenly.
(Translation by Roy Kotansky (2017)).