In Greek mythology, Orpheus's skill as a poet and musician was such that he even charmed wild beasts. He had the misfortune of charming the Maenads, who tore him to pieces after the death of Eurydice to punish him for rebuffing their advances. Gustave Moreau continued the myth, with the vision of a girl dressed in Oriental finery rescuing the poet's head. Is she a wise virgin to efface the memory of the mad Bacchantes?
The poet's head rests on his lyre, and the girl is gazing at him with a melancholy air. The two faces, strangely similar with their closed eyes, seem absorbed in infinite contemplation. The horrible ordeal is followed by a calm scene mysteriously free of morbidity and bathed in a twilight glow, with a fantastic landscape in the background worthy of Leonardo Da Vinci. The diagonal compositions suggests a playing card, in which the musicians in the top left corner are balanced by the turtles, lower right, whose carapace, according to the myth, was used to make the first lyre.
In Orpheus, we sense the emergence of a semi-fantastic world with disturbing atmospheres, impregnated with ambiguous charms. The golden chiaroscuro, complex composition and sensual yet mystic mood that characterised Moreau's mature style about 1870 are already in place here.For all these reasons, Moreau counts as a decisive figure in the Symbolist movement.