John William Waterhouse was a painter in the 19th and early 20th century who is famous for his depictions of classical myths in a distinctive Pre-Raphaelite style. One of his later paintings is titled, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900). While Orpheus’ death does not figure into the story of his katabasis, it is nevertheless an important part of the mythos of Orpheus. Ovid’s version of the story (probably the most poetic, and therefore likely the inspiration behind Waterhouse’s painting) tells of Orpheus refusing the advances of some Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus. Angry, they throw sticks and stones at him, but he sings such a beautiful song that the inanimate objects refuse to hit him. Furious, the Maenads descend on him and rip him to shreds in a Bacchaen fury. (This behavior was common among the Maenads, at least according to myth.) His head and lire are knocked into the river, and he floats to Lesbos, still singing. His head is found by the occupants of the island, and they bury his head and build a shrine around him. He continues to sing. Apollo was prophesied to someday visit the island and silence his singing. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
Waterhouse’s depiction of the women of Lesbos finding Orpheus’ head clearly shows the influence the Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite Movements had on Waterhouse. The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of predominately English painters, writers, and musicians who tried to reinvent art history – instead of expanding on the style of the Mannerist artists who followed Raphael and Michelangelo, they embraced the classical poses and style of art before Raphael and Michelangelo. Hence the group’s name. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was a part of the larger Aesthetic Movement, which encompassed all of Europe. The Aesthetic Movement rejected the 19th century’s artistic obsession with realism, and focused instead on creating art simply for the sake of beauty. The Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite movement was drawing to a close when Waterhouse was in his prime, and so many consider him influenced by rather than a part of the Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite Movements. Some of Waterhouse’s most famous works are Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), Ophelia (1894), and The Lady of Shallot (1888). While his artwork was designed to mimic work of the classical period, he nevertheless uses period representations of beauty. The women in Waterhouse’s work look very similar to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse Jane Morris, who was considered one of the most beautiful women of the Aesthetic Movement. Similarly, Ovid never refers to nymphs finding the head of Orpheus, but nymphs were a reoccurring theme in Aesthetic Movement art. Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus is not simply a painting of a moment in Ovid’s story, but is also an adaption of Ovid’s work, using a style and perception of beauty inherent to the period to represent a classical myth.