- 款識：畫家簽名 Marc Chagall 並紀年1977（右下）；簽名 Marc Chagall 並紀年1977（背面）
Acquired by the present owner in 1993
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Marc Chagall. Rétrospective de l’œuvre peint, 1984, no. 76, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Chagall, 1985, no. 118, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Ingo F. Walther & Rainer Metzger, Marc Chagall: Painting as Poetry, Cologne, 2012, illustrated in colour p. 89
The myth of Orpheus has undergone countless retellings and formed the basis for various religious devotions amongst the ancient Greeks. The son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the nymph Calliope, Orpheus was said to have been given his lyre by the Sun god Apollo, and his music charmed not only the living but also trees and rocks as well. Orpheus’s wife, the nymph Eurydice, was pursued by a satyr. In her bid to escape its unwanted attentions she was bitten on the ankle by a viper and died. Distraught, Orpheus travelled to the underworld to persuade Hades and Persephone to allow him to reclaim his wife. Beguiled by his music the Gods relented, but only on the condition that on their journey back to the world above Orpheus did not betray their trust and look back upon Eurydice. At the exit Orpheus turned to see his wife and because Eurydice had not yet crossed the threshold, she was lost to him forever.
Discussing the composition of the present work, Susan Compton writes: ‘The ancient story of Orpheus and his descent into the underworld has allowed Chagall to work on a black background in as inventive a way as the extraordinary manner with which he had worked with white in The Fall of Icarus [fig. 2] two years before. Although at first the eye is captured by the areas of bright colour, when it becomes accustomed to the overall darkness it can recognise myriads of figures and representations with which the gloomy background is populated’ (S. Compton, Chagall (exhibition catalogue), p. 241). These lozenges of bright colour, emblazoned by idiomatic devices which refer more to Chagall’s personal mythology rather than that of Orpheus’, also serve to relieve the composition of a one-dimensional narrative. The central figures are not portrayed enacting a specific part of the story, and the peripheral figures and setting seem to underlay the prime subject with wealth of secondary ideas.
Aside from the synonymous instrument in the present work, the remaining features of the composition are universal to most of his paintings, in particular the shtetl-esque buildings in the background and the lamb. And apart from the central figure of Orpheus, there is some ambiguity as to the identity of the others. Susan Compton suggests that ‘the white monster beside him does not look like a traditional Pan, who has legs, horns and a goat’s beard. But neither is it certain whether it is Eurydice who reclines in the foreground, or Persephone, the queen of Hades, who is being charmed by the music. Whichever ancients are read into the scene, the artist provokes thought, with his radiant sun, his little moon and the Tree of Life on its turquoise triangle. He seems to have set out paradoxes of life and death – in a composition which combines the colour and shape of twentieth-century abstraction with the alluring figures which people the artist’s dreams’ (ibid., p. 241).