Flemish School of the 17th Century

Orpheus and the Animals

Oil on canvas, 146,5 x 217 cm

Price on request

Provenance: South German private collection.


On an impressive, room-filling format, this painting depicts „Orpheus and the Animals“.

The harp-playing Orpheus sits centrally in front of a tree whose trunk forks above his head. This central tree frames the scenery with its crown towards the horizon and at the same time offers space for many birds through its branches. The left half of the picture is dominated by a seascape, at the edge of which the ruins of a castle can be seen deep in the background. This seascape, which is framed by mountains on the horizon, is the only area where sky can be seen. On this side, waterfowl such as storks, swans and ducks can be seen. In the right half, the viewer looks into a deep European forest. On this right side, more land animals can be found, such as deer, rabbits and lions, among others. Orpheus wears opulent red and gold clothing with gold trim, and under his blue breastplate we see a white shirt. His feet are adorned by elaborate sandals. His head is surrounded by a radiant laurel wreath („poeta laureatus“). The young man is clearly recognisable by his harp, the laurel wreath and the animals surrounding him as the singer and poet of Greek mythology, Orpheus.


Orpheus was one of the Argonauts who, under Jason, was searching for the Golden Fleece. He sang so beautifully that he even conquered the angry sea and enemies by the magic of his lyre. During the journey, Orpheus is said to have even drowned out the sirens with his singing. It is said that he was the greatest of all poets and charmed people, animals, stones and trees with his song.

A total of 51 birds and 37 different species are depicted in the painting. .[1]  Most of the animals are depicted in great detail and, with the exception of a few, can be identified. Mainly European species are shown. Exceptions are the ostrich-like nandu peeking out from behind the deer, the large parrot at the upper left, and the two lions. The same applies to the large animal directly behind Orpheus on the right. The shape of the head suggests an arctic fox from the polar regions, even though the body is much too large. The arctic fox was first described in 1555 by Olaus Magnus. However, it could also be a depiction of a brown or black bear.

An unusual detail is the animal, which is relatively isolated in the right background and looks to the left. It is not clearly identifiable, but it bears some resemblance to the Australian kangaroo. This was first described by Vespucci in 1500 and further by Francisco Pelsaert in 1629. If it is indeed a kangaroo, this would be one of the earliest surviving pictorial representations of a kangaroo.

In this painting, Orpheus is accompanied by a small monkey playing a viola da gamba. This is an iconographic peculiarity. In general, this painting has some peculiarities compared to other paintings with „Orpheus and the Animals“. The central positioning of Orpheus is quite common, but he usually holds a lyre and is dressed in an antique style, but not as opulently. The choice of animals is also remarkable: European animals in particular are to be seen, hardly any exotic features such as camels or elephants.

The two lions in the right foreground are a quotation after Peter Paul Rubens and his depiction of „Daniel in the Lion’s Den“, which was realised in an engraving.


On the basis of its painterly and compositional conception, the present painting can be classified as belonging to the Flemish School of the 17th century. There are numerous depictions of this Orpheus theme from the circle of Jan Brueghel the Younger, who used the occasion to show as many exotic animals as possible. There are also echoes of Spanish painters such as Juan de Arellano or the Italian Sinibaldo Scorza. The composition of the tree landscape is also reminiscent of Jan Brueghel the Younger and Roelant Savery. One must assume that the artist of the present painting knew some depictions of Orpheus and combined them here in a kind of capriccio. Moreover, one must assume that he had seen some of the animals either in the original (menageries), as stuffed animals or also in copper engravings. This access and this education alone speak for a creation of the painting in the circle of a court or a highly educated patron.



[1] We would like to thank Mr. Ruud Vlek, Amsterdam, for his research and for his help to identify the different species and their meaning.