Flemish School

Orpheus and the animals

Oil on canvas, 146,5 x 217 cm

Provenance: South German private collection.

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On an impressive, room-filling format, this painting depicts „Orpheus and the Animals.“
The harp-playing Orpheus sits centrally in front of a tree whose trunk bifurcates above his head. This central tree frames with its crown the scenery towards the horizon and at the same time offers through branches the possibility for many birds to find space. The left half of the picture is characterized by a seascape, at the edge of which the ruins of a castle can be seen deep in the background. This seascape, framed by mountains on the horizon, is the only area where sky can be seen. On this side, waterfowl such as storks, swans and ducks can be seen. In the right half, the viewer looks into a deep European forest. On this right side, more land animals can be found, such as deer, rabbits and lions, among others. Orpheus wears opulent red and gold trimmed clothing, under his blue breastplate we see a white shirt. His feet are adorned by elaborate sandals. His head is surrounded by a radiant laurel wreath („poeta laureatus“). The young man is clearly identifiable as the singer and poet of Greek mythology, Orpheus, by his harp, the laurel wreath and the animals surrounding him.

Orpheus was one of the Argonauts who, under Jason, was searching for the Golden Fleece. He sang so beautifully that he even conquered the angry sea and enemies by the magic of his lyre. During the journey, Orpheus is said to have drowned out even the sirens with his singing. It is said that he was the greatest of all poets and charmed people, animals, stones and trees with his singing.
In total, 51 birds and 37 different species are depicted in the painting. The animals are mostly depicted in great detail and, except for a few, can be identified. Mainly European species of animals are shown. Exceptions are the ostrich-like nandu peeking out from behind the deer, as well as the large parrot on the upper left, and the two lions. Similar is the case for the large animal directly behind Orpheus on the right. The shape of the head suggests an arctic fox from the polar regions, even though the body is much too large. The arctic fox was first described in 1555 by Olaus Magnus. However, it could also be a depiction of a brown or black bear.
An unusual detail is the animal, which is relatively isolated in the right background and looks to the left. It is not clearly identifiable, but it shows certain similarities with the Australian kangaroo. This was first described by Vespucci in 1500 and further by Francisco Pelsaert in 1629. If it is indeed a kangaroo, this would be one of the earliest surviving pictorial representations.
In this painting, Orpheus is accompanied by a small monkey playing a viola da gamba. This is an iconographic peculiarity. In general, this painting has some peculiarities compared to other paintings with „Orpheus and the animals“. The central positioning of Orpheus is quite common, but he usually holds a lyre and is dressed in an antique style, but not as opulently. The choice of animals is also remarkable: European animals in particular are seen, hardly any exotic features, such as camels or elephants.
The two lions in the right foreground are a quotation from Peter Paul Rubens and his depiction of „Daniel in the Lion’s Den“, which was realized in an engraving.

The present painting can be classified as belonging to the Flemish School of the 17th century on the basis of its painterly and compositional conception. From the circle of Jan Brueghel the Younger are numerous representations of this Orpheus – theme, which take it as an opportunity to show as many exotic animals. There are also echoes of Spanish painters such as Juan de Arellano or the Italian Sinibaldo Scorza. The composition of the tree landscape is also reminiscent of Jan Brueghel the Younger and Roelant Savery. One must assume that the artist of the present painting knew some representations of Orpheus and combined them here in a kind of capriccio. Moreover, one must assume that he had seen some of the animals either in the original (menageries), as stuffed animals or also in copper engravings. This access and this education alone speak for a creation of the painting in the environment of a court or a highly educated client.

The painting shows 51 birds of 37 species

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