Jen’s Art Institute Post (Death of Orpheus by Henri Levy)

1 Nov

At the Chicago Art Institute, Henri Levy Death of Orpheus is a jarring painting without the same direct gore in works of art like other paintings or some horror films. Levy’s limited use of some of color make the painting disturbing and frightening showing the result of a violent murder.

The colors make the painting somber.  The bluish grays make up most of the palette of the painting.  The oil paint makes the picture feel heavy.  The expressive brush strokes give add texture to the painting and reflect the energy of Orpheus’s violent death.   Waves of a river in the painting make it seem as they rush and together and push Orpheus’s head from his body.  Most disturbing about the painting is not a head detached from its body, but the bright red paint that mixes with the river’s waves.  It’s not a very bloody scene.  Levy uses little other colors on his palette.  The small amount of red against the blue and gray tones is abrupt much like the end of Orpheus’s life.  Any more red from Orpheus’s floating head would make the painting have less of an impact.  The gray wall that the painting was on amplified the redness of the thin brushstrokes.  Without using much paint, Levy is able to show the violence of Orpheus’s death.

Orpheus’s head floats flatly on the water, but the purple and blues in the distance adds depth to the painting.  In the distance, the viewers can see Orpheus’s killers running wildly from the scene of the crime. The fuzzy red  and orange colors of the killers signify the violent act the band of killers committed.  The reds and oranges blend into the atmosphere adding soft contrast to the over all grayness painting.  Warmer colors are not as a jarring as the red blood in the water, but they illuminate the antagonists of the story and bring more focus to the foreground and the victim of the murder.

Low flying gulls seem to be the only ones to mourn Orpheus’s death.  They congregated over his floating, still bleeding head. The gray tone of Orpheus’s body shows that all life had left him. The darkness of the painting frames the headless corpse like a coffin.   Exposed Orpheus has no other resting place but the shores of the river.  Even in death, Orpheus has not lost his other worldly light that shines as a halo.  There is a little amount of yellow paint much like the blood, but its effect is just enough to realize that Orpheus was not an ordinary being.  The yellow frames Orpheus’s head as if to preserve his superhuman persona. It shines brightly illuminating the murky water.  In death Orpheus clutches his harp tightly, protecting it from the killers. The gold harp shines like the halo around the floating head.  Orpheus has lost his life, but not his art.

Levy used small amounts of paint to make his painting disturbing.  His use of color heightened the dreadful crime.  The way Levy used his color acted as frames to the story of Orpheus’s death.  Like the small amount red for blood, the amount of yellow and gold paint were meager, but made a large impact on Orpheus’s identity as a superhuman being.  Till his death Orpheus tried to protect his harp; his art.  Orpheus lost his life, but to allow the art to carry on like the waves of the beach shore in the painting.  How far is one willing to go for the arts?  Orpheus lost his life, but the serene look on the floating head may suggest that he would rather the art live on than he.  How could one go on without such an important aspect of his life and character, like his art?  Being super human Orpheus could have saved his self.  Despite the motives of the killers, Orpheus saw a direct threat to his art, and believed it better to preserve it.


Note: The painting in person has more blue overtones than yellow tones from this reproduction from the internet.


12 Responses to “Jen’s Art Institute Post (Death of Orpheus by Henri Levy)”

  1. mondaymorningkings November 6, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

    Unfortunately for me, this is not a painting I saw while at the art institute. Just from the small image it look very fluid and active. The way you described the color palette and contrasts make me want to see it that much more. I imagine that those beautifully selected colors and hints of red on a gray background are wonderful in person.

    • mondaymorningkings November 6, 2010 at 10:38 pm #

      ^ comment by Zachary Michael

    • jennljohnson10 November 7, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

      It’s much better in person. Other representations don’t do it justice.

  2. alissapagels November 7, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    Great commentary on a piece I seemed to have missed during all my visits to the Art Institute. I will definitely hunt this one down next time.
    I also was struck by the beam of light that seems to shine down upon his severed head like a spotlight.

    • jennljohnson10 November 7, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

      All the times I had gone to the Art Institute, I had never seen it till this project.

  3. lumberjacked November 7, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    Ben Sliwa (lumberjacked)
    Although this piece is morbid in subject, containing a severed head, the painting overall gives off a soothing tone in my opinion. The gentle waves of brush strokes, the glow around orpheus’s head, and the bright white birds may be responsible for making it that way to me. Very detailed description, good write up!

    • jennljohnson10 November 7, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

      Morbid Yes!I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  4. noble9 November 7, 2010 at 9:40 pm #

    The colors chosen by Henri Levy do make the piece appear dark. However this type of darkness is of mourn and the colors of blue, gray and of purple give it that precise appearance. I can see how Orpheus protects his harp and the Levy made an excellent interpretation of that.


  5. kgrochowska November 7, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    I love how disturbing this painting is, yet it’s so subtle in showing it. All of the color tones used, bring you to an uneasy state. Also, I agree with your observation on the gulls as well, especially since birds usually represent freedom, but in this painting they do not bring that feeling at all.

    -Karolina Grochowska

  6. jjmarthistory2 November 8, 2010 at 12:32 am #

    This was great read. If I had never read this entry I would have never known that Orpheus’s head was cut off. The painting is very confusing to look at initially. As I looked at it longer I began to see his head and body near the shore. Great work on the entry. – Johnny Hicks

  7. Sarah Kaiser-Amaral January 8, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

    Very descriptive and insightful. Thanks

    • jennljohnson10 January 8, 2015 at 10:53 pm #

      Thank you. This was for a class years ago. Glad you enjoyed it.

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