The Return of Orpheus
oil on canvas
4012 x 18 in. (103 x 45.8 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 28 October 1982, lot 86, as 'Orpheus', where purchased for the present collection.
London, Royal Academy, 1907, no. 511.
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Lot Essay

The Return of Orpheus represents not only a seminal work by a rare artist but more importantly it holds the distinction of being the first painting purchased for the collection. As such it must be judged not just for its artistic merit but also as the piece that inspired a passion for collecting that continues to this day.

Meteyard was a polymath, who taught enamelling, gesso, leather work and other crafts at the Birmingham School of Art. He also became an accomplished stained glass designer, a passion he shared with his hero and fellow Birmingham native, Burne-Jones. His various enthusiasms are demonstrated in this important painting, one of several he exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1900 and 1918. Although secular in subject the composition could easily lend itself to stained glass, especially in its feeling for colour, most especially blue. Orpheus’s sandals are an ingenious exploration of the plasticity of leather, and the rocks also show an interest in texture and mass.

Orpheus is shown at the mouth of a cave, the entrance to the Underworld. The fading autumn leaves around him suggest that he has failed in his quest to retrieve his bride Eurydice, who had died shortly after their wedding after treading on a nest of vipers. According to Greek myth, Orpheus had been allowed by the gods of Mount Olympus to retrieve her and bring her back to life, if only he never looked back. This he almost achieved, but fatally he did so when he was at the mouth of the cave in sunshine, while Eurydice was a few steps behind him in shadow. She had not crossed the threshold from limbo to life, and the gods would allow no second attempt to reach her. Orpheus was distraught, hence his resolute gaze into the middle distance. He sat on a rock and ignored the attentions of the Maenads, a group of women. Frustrated, they tore him limb from limb and tipped his body into a river. Myth relates how his head kept singing however, accompanied by his lyre, until it was found by nymphs a long way off. The myth’s purpose, like the Old Testament story of Lot’s wife, who looked back on Sodom and Gomorrah when she was commanded not to and turned into a pillar of salt, is to urge the audience to face the future not the past.

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