Art European

From the Collection: “Orpheus” and Its Mysterious Origins

Through January 28, 2024, Milwaukee Art Museum visitors have the opportunity to explore an exquisite collection of artworks on view in “Art, Life, Legacy.”


Through January 28, 2024, Milwaukee Art Museum visitors have the opportunity to explore an exquisite collection of artworks on view in Art, Life, Legacy: Northern European Paintings in the Collection of Isabel and Alfred Bader. The 75 paintings presented in the exhibition were assembled while the Baders, longtime Museum patrons and supporters, were living in Milwaukee. They not only gave artworks to the Museum—many of which are on view in the collection galleries—but were formative in the development of the European art program at the Museum.

One such artwork is the painting Orpheus by Adriaen van Nieulandt the Younger, on view in gallery S106. The painting shows a popular mythological scene, and closer inspection of the work reveals the artwork’s interesting origins.

Orpheus is one of the most familiar characters from classical mythology. His incredible musical talents allowed him to charm the wild creatures of the forest. In the Museum’s painting, Orpheus strums on a harp while a variety of animals come in closer to listen. Some of the animals would have been familiar to a viewer of 17th-century Europe: a horse, dog, goat, cow, and rabbit. But others are from faraway places: a monkey, a camel, and an ostrich. Proof of the magnetic pull of Orpheus’s music can be seen in the distance at right, where an elephant and a lion race up the riverbank to join in.

Viewers familiar with the story of Orpheus also know that after his love Eurydice died, he used his music to convince the lord of the underworld, Hades, to release her back to the living. Of course, Orpheus broke the one requirement for Eurydice to return with him: he looked back before they were above ground, and she descended to the underworld permanently.

We can assume that Adriaen van Nieulandt the Younger drew from this narrative to create a painting that communicated the power of music. And this leads us to this artwork’s hidden story.

Alfred Bader bought the painting from a woman in Portsmouth, Ohio, who found it in her mother’s barn. She did not know how it had come into her mother’s possession. Intrigued, Dr. Bader had it cleaned by a conservator, who made two important discoveries.

First, if you look at the painting carefully, you’ll notice that in the upper right-hand corner, there is a little bit of sky missing. Isn’t that strange? The conservator certainly thought so. 

Second, the conservator discovered that the back of the painting (which is on a panel made of wood) had been painted gray long after it was made. Under that gray paint was an original painted decoration of leaves and flowers that mimics carvings. What could this all mean?

Both the conservator and Dr. Bader deduced it meant that the painting was originally part of a musical instrument called a harpsichord. These instruments look a lot like a grand piano: a lid is lifted when it is played, and that lid is often decorated. Because of his association with beautiful music, Orpheus was a popular subject for a painted scene on a harpsichord. A great example of this instrument can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. You can also see painted instruments in two of Jan Vermeer’s paintings, The Concert and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal.

The Harpsichord at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring Orpheus
Inside the Harpsichord at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring Orpheus

At some point, due to damage or perhaps because the owner didn’t care to keep the instrument, the lid of the harpsichord with our painting was trimmed down to a rectangle so it could be framed and hung on a wall. To retain as much of the scene as possible, a corner of the sky is missing because of the curve of the lid. See below for a sketch of what this would have looked like, as well as a re-creation of the shape in the exhibition The Detective’s Eye: Investigating the Old Masters, which Dr. Bader curated for the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1989.

Orpheus sketch
Gallery shot of the exhibition The Detective's Eye

These types of stories, requiring close looking and thoughtful analysis, were among Isabel and Alfred Bader’s favorite things about art. They believed that anyone could develop an eye for art—you don’t need to be an expert, you just need the interest and a little bit of time. I hope that you take this as encouragement to look carefully and ask questions the next time you visit the Museum. You’ll likely make some great discoveries!

Start your journey of discovery by exploring Art, Life, Legacy: Northern European Paintings in the Collection of Isabel and Alfred Bader and joining us for one of the many exhibition-related events. To see even more works in the Museum thanks to the Baders, pick up a brochure at the end of the exhibition. To continue learning online, check out these blog posts:

1. Adriaen van Nieulandt the Younger (Dutch, 1587–1658), Orpheus, n.d. Oil on panel. 19 3/4 × 31 3/4 in. (50.17 × 80.65 cm). Gift of Isabel and Alfred Bader, M1991.371. Photo by Cleber Bonato
2. Italian, Harpsichord, late 17th century. Wood, paint, various materials. 244 × 90 × 31 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Susan Dwight Bliss, 1945, acc. no. 45.41a-c
3. Installation images of the exhibition The Detective’s Eye, on view from January 19, 1989, through March 19, 1989

Catherine Sawinksi  headshot

Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.

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