Camille Corot: Orpheus and Lot’s Wife: Don’t Look Back…

3 Dec

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861

Two paintings – one painter and one motif that binds them; looking back and disobeying the given command. “Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld” is one of those gorgeous, ethereal and dreamy landscapes that Corot (1796-1875) painted later in his career. The scene depicts the mythology tale of the musician Orpheus who loved his wife Eurydice, who had died from a snake bite, so much that he even dared to visit the Underworld just to bring her back. His music teacher was the God Apollo and he played the lyre so beautifully that it charmed everyone who heard it and even made the trees dance. After Eurydice had died, Orpheus was inconsolable and wandered around desperate and mournful, playing heart-breakingly sad songs on his lyre, music so sad that it touched the hearts of all the nymphs and gods who urged him to go look for Eurydice in the kingdom of Hades. And so he did. Hades and Persephone were touched by his story and told him that he can bring Eurydice back to the world, but he musn’t look back until the leave the Underworld. Let us remind ourselves that Persephone herself had been in a similar situation to Eurydice.

Corot’s painting shows this scene of Orpheus, with his omnipresent lyre, leading Eurydice by the hand, through the dreamy landscapes of the world of dead, undoubtedly dreamier in Corot’s version that in reality. Corot doesn’t show the horrible moment when Orpheus, out of curiosity or insecurity perhaps, turned around to look at his beloved Eurydice who then vanished forever… That would have been an interesting painting, I imagine Eurydice’s ghostly figure fading away. Was she angry or disappointed, I wonder? No need to punish Orpheus, for later on he met an equally tragic fate… Baudelaire praised Corot’s “simplicity of colour” and called his landscapes “seductive”. An interesting choice of a word, but I must agree. I mean, just look at how seductively magical his painting of Orpheus and Eurydice is! The trees look so ephemereal and dreamy, as if they truly don’t belong on this earth. Eurydice looks ghostly enough in her gauze dress. In the background forlorn souls are lamenting their state.

Camille Corot, The Burning of Sodom (formerly ‘The Destruction of Sodom’), 1843/57

In the painting “The Burning of Sodom” you can see Corot’s earlier style which is more sombre and moody, the colours are heavy and earthy, and the overall mood is not that of dreaminess and softness. Corot painted this in 1843 and made some adjustments in 1857, that is, he cut off some of the canvas. The cloudy sky used to be bigger but for some reason Corot thought it would be better to get rid of it. The scene shows an Angel leading Lot and his daughters to safety after God had decided to destroy Sodom, and we all know why. Only the righteous ones are to be saved. Paintings that depict this motif typically focus on Lot and his daughters after they had escaped, but Corot here focuses on the crucial moment. Who is that still, dark figure in the right? It is Lot’s wife, of course. God had turned her into a pillar of salt after she had disobeyed his command of not looking back.

One scene is mythological, the other is Biblical; one is Corot’s earlier work and the other is a later one, but they both deal with the motif of disobedience to God(s). The tale of Lot’s wife shows us that you cannot save people against their will, and that is something to remember in life. You cannot open their eyes to truth if they refuse to see, if they are looking without seeing and listening without hearing, then better leave then behind, leave them in their Sodom, perhaps that is a punishment enough. Out of sadness, regret or pity, Lot’s wife disobeyed the Angel’s command and she turned around to glance at the burning city for one last time. Yearning to save another soul – she lost her own. It’s a very profound and deep message for these times as well.

5 Responses to “Camille Corot: Orpheus and Lot’s Wife: Don’t Look Back…”

  1. sbmumford 3rd Dec 2021 at 7:45 pm #

    Nice post, great paintings, bookends to each other as it were, sharing an allegory.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lautreamont 4th Dec 2021 at 8:56 pm #

    I always loved Rilke’s poem, Orpheus,Eurydice,Hermes.D’ya ever hear “From the Underworld” by the Herd? Pop psychedelia,but it works.Got some great lines in it. It’s dark,below freezing,and Dog Boy goes straight into the Thames.A woman passerby asks me “Is that your dog – Jesus that’s style! Best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 4th Dec 2021 at 9:51 pm #

      No, I haven’t read From the Underworld yet, but now you’re making me curious…

      Like

      • Lautreamont 4th Dec 2021 at 11:39 pm #

        It’s a song nay a book.The band was the Herd. Wouldn’t normally have been my kind of thing but I’ve always liked it. John Lennon and Phil Spector nicked the chiming bell opening for Lennon’s song Mother. You can hear it on Y.Tube.Any song with the opening line”Out of the land of shadows and darkness we were returning towards the morning light” gets my attention immediately! It’s weird arrangement but it’s got a few great lines.Ha!

        Liked by 1 person

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