Orpheus & Eurydice
Signed Ambrosi and dated 1919
Bronze, with a rich deep and mid brown patina
Height: 19 3/4" (50 cm)
Conceived and cast circa 1919. The original plaster is currently part of the Ambrosi Museum (Belvedere Collection), Vienna. Another bronze cast of the work is also part of this collection.
Gustinus Ambrosi was born in Eisenstadt, Austria, in February 1893. A descendent from an Italian family, his first passion was for music, but this was sadly crushed when due to an illness, he lost his hearing at seven years of age. Ambrosi found solace and salvation in his ability to draw and sculpt. Much of his time was spent modelling hundreds of plaster sketches, which displayed an unusually mature quality from early on.
In 1909, Ambrosi’s family move to Graz, where the young prodigy studied under various decorative sculptors. At the age of sixteen, the young artist was working as an apprentice to a builder when a workman on his side fell off a high scaffolding, breaking his neck. The incident had a deep effect on Ambrosi and inspired the highly acclaimed work Man with a Broken Neck. The piece, which was shown at the Fine Arts Society of Styria shortly after it was produced, represented a major break-through in the artist’s career. The sculptor enrolled at the Vienna Academy in 1912 and studied under Josef Muller. His talent earned him the coveted State Prize in 1913, which included the presentation of the artist’s studio by the Emperor, Franz Joseph II.
In 1925, the critic Fritz Karpfen published a portfolio of Ambrosi’s sculptures, describing how ‘a thousand mysterious sources are enriching and fertilising’ the mind of the artist. By that time, the volume and span of Ambrosi’s work had become truly remarkable, arching from portraiture to symbolist and figurative work. Sculptures like his Cain (1916) were compared to the work of Michelangelo for their emotional charge. At the same time, the artist was also compared to Rodin for his sculptural technique, which would often make images emerge from blocks of roughly hewn marble.
Ambrosi’s impressive portrait oeuvre represents important European intellectual and artists, such as Constantin Meunier, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Strauss and Franz Schubert. He was commissioned by the Prince of Lichtenstein, Franz Joseph II, and by the Austrian President, Karl Renner, to sculpt their portraits, as well as by the Vatican to produce busts for Pope Pius XI, Pius XII and Johannes XXIII.
In his career, Ambrosi exhibited throughout Europe and remained active until his death in July 1975. As a tribute to the sculptor, the State opened the Gustinus Ambrosi Museum, with a permanent collection of his work, in Vienna in October 1978.
The present bronze is signed ‘Ambrosi’ and dated 1919; it was likely cast from a plaster bearing the same signature and date, currently part of the Gustinus Ambrosi Museum collection. The only known bronze version of this work in the same size is also part of the same collection.
The piece represents the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which was made famous in the first century BC by the Roman poet Virgil in his poem, Georgics. One day, the shepherd Aristaeus, enraptured by the beauty of Orpheus’ wife, started chasing her on a river bank. Frantically fleeing her suitor, Eurydice was bitten by a deadly snake hiding in the grass. As a result, Orpheus wandered across the Greek lands, playing his lyre so sorrowfully and sweetly that he moved to tears humans and animals alike. Virgil recounts how, as Orpheus arrived at the Gates of Hell, even Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog guarding the Underworld entrance, ‘held his three mouths gaping wide’ hearing Orpheus playing.
The young demi-god’s lament touched Hell’s monstrous guardian as well as its master, Proserpine. The Queen of the Underworld allowed Orpheus to lead his departed wife back to the world of the living, however with one condition: that he should never turn to look at her before they reached the surface of Earth above.
Ambrosi’s piece represents the tragic moment in which Orpheus, not hearing the footsteps of his dead wife’s soul, tragically turns to make sure she is still behind him, breaking the pact he has made with Proserpine and condemning Eurydice to return to the World of the Dead. While in Virgil’s narrative the soul disappears ‘like smoke vanishing in thin air’, Ambrosi increases the pathetic charge of his composition by adding two hands, which, appearing from the rock, grasp the woman’s ankles. Thus, the Dead reclaim their companion, physically removing Eurydice from her lover’s embrace.
The circularity of the composition forces the viewer to engage continuously with Ambrosi’s piece, re-activating the performance of its tragic subject. The stark depiction of the bodies’ torsion and musculature increases the drama of the scene.