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Work Orpheus Charming the Animals

Department of Prints and Drawings: 18th century

Orphée charmant les animaux

Prints and Drawings
18th century

Bartolucci S.

Orpheus Charming the Animals is one of a number of works in which Cades treats a subject from mythology. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, Europe was swept by a wave of interest in the revival of classical history and mythology. However, the distinctively personal approach to antiquity developed by Cades sets him apart from his contemporaries.

Orpheus, the bard of love

This drawing, dating from the 1780s, was probably the preliminary study for a decorative painting (or perhaps for an engraving) today only known to us through two unsigned drawings. The work is composed of two scenes: in the background, Orpheus charming the birds; in the foreground, a strange allegory which is rather difficult to interpret. A female figure, probably Venus, gestures toward three cupids hammering at an anvil (possibly that of Vulcan). The juxtaposition of these two scenes, with the noisy atmosphere of the one in stark contrast to the musicality of the other, probably derives from a loose and ironic interpretation of Book Ten of Ovid's Metamorphoses (8 AD) in which the Latin poet recounted Orpheus's romantic adventures. The hero, after failing in his attempt to rescue Eurydice from the underworld, retired to Thrace, where he renounced his love of women and dedicated his life to teaching. He taught the men of this part of Greece the art of loving pre-pubescent boys.

The vogue for classical antiquity

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, Europe rediscovered classical antiquity. Artists and intellectuals were enthused by new trends such as orientalism and especially Egyptomania. However, Cades developed such a personal taste for the Antique and for Renaissance painting that he soon found himself on the margins of Roman artistic circles. In his work, ancient history and myth, treated with irony, become the outward projection of an inner world informed by human passions. The serene vision of history and of antiquity which predominated among contemporary artists is transformed in Cades' work by his melancholy temperament and his dark and sorrowful experience of existence.

A sculptural effect

Cades worked on the paper for this drawing in the same manner as a sculptor chiseling the surface of stone; the drawing has the appearance of a bas-relief on a sarcophagus or of a temple pediment. The blank, almost abstract background highlights the importance of the subjects depicted. The artist vividly evokes the effect of the music which seems to affect both the animals and Orpheus' soul so profoundly. Stylistically, the drawing is a perfect example of Cades' highly finished manner, and of his method of using curved and flowing lines. This was how he defined the solid and imposing forms which inhabit the space like sculpted figures.


Les Métamorphoses d'Orphée. Exposition Tourcoing au Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg à l'Ancienne Douane, à Ixelles (près de Bruxelles) au Musée communal, 1995, notice 40.
Caracciolo M.T., "Storia antica e mitologica nell'arte di Giuseppe Cades", in Quaderni sul neoclassico, n 4, 1978, Miscellanea, Rome, pp. 79-84.
Caracciolo M.T., Giuseppe Cades 1750-1799 et la Rome de son temps, Paris, 1992, n 67A, pp. 257.

Technical description

  • Giuseppe CADES(Rome, 1750-99)

    Orpheus Charming the Animals


  • Pen and brown ink; ochre, brown, pink, and gray wash

    H. 14.5 cm; W. 38 cm

  • Marquis de Lagoy collection; J. A. Duval Le Camus, Calando collection. Purchased by the Louvre in 1970.

    RF 34511

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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