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Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus

Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Peter Cooke offers an interpretation of the girl in Moreau’s Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus :

“The attentive viewer is bound to question the Thracian girl’s identity but will be baffled by contradictory clues. Her pose recalls the traditional iconography of Judith bearing the head of Holofernes or, as some critics recognized, of Salome bearing that of Saint John the Baptist. Simultaneously, her tender gravity evokes the paradigm of the Pietà, a fact at which Moreau himself hints in the word ‘piously [pieusement],’ used in the description in the Salon catalogue…Perhaps prompted by Moreau’s hint, a few critics discerned quasi-devotional qualities in the painting. Augustin-Joseph Du Pays, for example, mentions ‘the religious action that [the girl] carries out,’ and the ultra-Catholic polemicist Louis Veuillot was struck by ‘the wholly Christian expression of this virgin who has just picked up the serene head of Orpheus, torn by the Maenads, and who is carrying it off on his lyre.’ But the girl’s demure head, with its chaste hairstyle, is contradicted by the sensual appeal that her naked feet offered contemporary male viewers. The Thracian girl’s paradoxical identity resists closure.”

Peter Cooke, “Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting,” Art Bulletin, vol. 90, no. 3 (September 2008): 408

Similar Subjects by Other Artists:

Odilon Redon, Head of Orpheus, c. 1881 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Franz von Stuck, Orpheus, 1891 (Stuck Villa, Munich)

Eugène Delacroix, Orpheus Bringing Civilization to the Barbarian Ancerstors of the Greeks, 1845-47 (Yale University Art Gallery)

James Vibert, The Head of Saint John the Baptist, 1894-1900 (Portland Museum of Art, Oregon)

About the Artist

Born: Paris, 6 April 1826
Died: Paris, 18 April 1898
Nationality: French