Visual Arts Essay: What is a Moment? — Two paintings of the wounded Eurydice by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
Of course, I have no idea what was in Corot’s mind. But the juxtaposition of these images appears to me to present two different moments in time, perhaps adjacent ones, perhaps as close as possible, like adjacent frames of a film.
When a friend told me that his favorite painting was Eurydice Wounded by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875), I found two versions on the internet, one in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the other in the Art Institute of Chicago. Corot was clearly fascinated by the story of Orpheus; he painted it at least six times between 1861–1870, including three canvasses in which Eurydice appears alone. (The third one is in a private collection in London; I haven’t seen it and won’t discuss it here.)
She is such a wonderfully opaque and liminal character, Eurydice. Like Gilgamesh, her immortality in myth arises from the necessity of her mortality being in question and the intensity of the striving to outwit Death—but her very opacity allows for multiple interpretations.
If we place images of two of Corot’s canvasses of Eurydice Wounded side by side, their slight differences shimmer, making me wonder about these representations of the Orpheus myth and about the question, What is a moment?
At first glance, it seemed to me that the Chicago painting, being more wooden and geometric, less life-like, might have been a preliminary study for the Minneapolis one. But the more I studied them both, the more it seemed as though Corot was trying to get at something different in each of them.
Both paintings represent Eurydice just after her wedding to Orpheus and after she has been bitten by a snake. This is before she dies and before Orpheus, grieving, descends to the realm of the dead to retrieve her, only to lose her again.
Thus, before grief and loss, Eurydice sits in a forest clearing surrounded by delicate, speckled trees and almost frothy grasses. She examines her wounded foot.
Perhaps, as Virgil says, when the snake bit her, Eurydice had been running from the amorous advances of Aristaeus. Perhaps, as Ovid says, it happened when she had been gathering flowers with her girlhood friends. Somehow, in the domestic game of toss-and-catch from father to husband, she has slipped from the grasp of both families, and she finds herself suddenly wounded and alone.
The snake did it. The snake always acts on the woman, originally with subtlety, later with enmity. He goes after the woman, strikes, and then for a moment the story becomes hers, before it widens out again to include the beloved, the gods, and all the rest of us. Here, the wedding games are over, along with the poems and torch-lit feasts, and the story has narrowed down to her. In private—watched only by Corot—she reads the fang marks, constructs and inhabits her narrative.
She is young, until now partaking in girlish games and delighting in intimacies with her man-god who can sing forests into being. Usually she listens and dances and feels, but now she is still; contemplation is her only action. Death comes through the head sometimes and sometimes through the foot. There is a huge difference. The head has all the senses, while the foot has only touch. Her foot hurts and hurts.
What they share, these paintings, is Eurydice’s solitude and pain. She does not and cannot let anyone know. There are no human habitations in view. The later story—the one everybody paints, and Corot, too—is Orpheus’s story. Orpheus takes over, as he should, because of his intensity, his genius, his divinity. At that point, Eurydice’s life becomes his love, his mission, and his loss. But right now, in these images, everything that comes later is suspended. She is in her full beauty and she is alone.
Part of the brilliance of these paintings is the way that Corot has unfolded the myth to look at Eurydice and the way her snake bite affects her before it affects Orpheus. Three decades after this painting, Rilke will give his own devastating vision in “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” published in Neue Gedichte in 1907. In the second half of the poem, Rilke gives a harrowing description Eurydice as she is led from Hades by Orpheus, and guided by the god Hermes. She is coiled inward, into her own being, so preoccupied and fulfilled by being dead that she is bewilderingly vague, dismissive of her lover and his passion:
And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around –,
she could not understand, and softly answered
(trans. Stephen Mitchell)
This is devastating to us precisely because we are in Orpheus’s story, with his point of view.
Peter Paul Rubens, in his Orpheus and Eurydice with Hades and Persephone in the Prado Museum, gives us a stunning vision of Eurydice’s more active reluctance to leave the realm of the dead. But here, too, the force of the painting depends on our identification with Orpheus and his mission and our surprise that Eurydice’s desires might run counter to his. (For a more complete discussion of this marvelously perverse painting, see my Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination.)
Nowadays it has become popular to concentrate on and stay within Eurydice’s point of view, but I wonder if Corot, in these paintings, was the first to do so.
In any case, let’s look at each of the canvasses in turn.
The forest has a gentle almost sepia-toned radiance, as does the girl’s body, though her face and front are in shadow. Her arms and legs are graceful, her limbs revealed. The brightest part of all is the inside edge of her foot, with its wound, surprising in the sudden pain of the bite. Behind her, on the hill, a temple, for the gods are never far, and should not be forgotten. They, too, will be part of her future story. The story is concentrated and distilled into calm, puzzled introspection.
Alone in the forest, she directs her gaze and ours. But we don’t look for long where she is pointing. Instead, we look at her lovely arms, her tilted face. We look into that generous cavern formed by her skirts. That luminous foot is the center of her deep attention and should be ours. That is the locus of the poison at this moment. But do not simplify: that brightness is not only death. It is concentrated danger and perhaps transcendence. We should pay attention to her attention. But from moment to moment, we forget what we know and we look on all of her loveliness. Corot is a master of composition, and he leads our gaze from toe to head and back, then off into the tonal harmony of the landscape, over to the temple, and back to the figure again.
Putting these two images next to each other, it is easy for me to read the Chicago painting as taking place hardly a second later. Nevertheless, the foliage has cooled and darkened, the trees are closing in. They no longer reach upward into the joyous air but grow tangled and indistinct, groping, uncannily seeking Eurydice at the center.
The loneliness has thickened into cooler shades of blue and greenish black. Both of these paintings are from what is called Corot’s “silvery” period, but to me the light is watery, as though we are at the bottom of a lake looking up and the nimbus behind Eurydice’s head is the surface of the water. See how the gods are hidden, their temple obscured.
Her body has turned a bit from us, while her face, more beautiful and knowing, has shifted toward us a little, now in three-quarter view, as if to tell us that she knows what we know. She is more draped, now. Her skirts cover her, no longer inviting our gaze. Behind her on the stone lies her red purse, deflated like some bodily organ, no longer needed.
Her arm glows, now, for the poison has spread to her shoulders. Her knee on the side of the wounded foot is more raised, as though her hip joint has stiffened. Her arm has grown straighter, her legs more angular, those graceful curves have sharpened into angles: she is becoming a geometric figure while we watch, all triangles. Except for that lovely face, still feeling, but now knowing.
At this lonely moment, introspection collides with intimation. She can feel Death running through her. She knows. Accepts. She looks so wise and calm that perhaps there will even be no panic, no alarm.
The music is absent. Everything distilled, concentrated. Gone are the lyres and drums, the games and dances, the young girls among the flowers. She no longer needs reminders of fertility, hence the discarded purse.
Her skirts, with their seven folds, seem carved from stone. She is becoming her own sarcophagus.
How everything has shifted in the space between these two paintings.
Perhaps Corot painted multiple canvasses of this scene not because patrons were demanding copies, not because he often gave one copy of a portrait to the sitter and another to the family of the sitter, but because he was getting at something and he needed two or three paintings to do it. That is, he may be trying to examine time, and the way he gets at it is to stretch time until it separates into different moments, each to be shown in one of the canvasses. (I wish I could see that third Eurydice painting.)
Of course, I have no idea what was in Corot’s mind. But the juxtaposition of these images appears to me to present two different moments in time, perhaps adjacent ones, perhaps as close as possible, like adjacent frames of a film: the Minneapolis moment—of puzzlement and pointing to the hurt of the snake bite—and the following Chicago moment, of recognition that the wound is fatal.
Proust discusses the notion of moments and the idea of stretching and manipulating time in a way that may be related to this. For example, in the Prologue to À la recherche du temps perdu, he describes the delight of the moment when his mother comes upstairs to kiss him goodnight, and the chagrin of the moment when she has left him to return to her dinner downstairs, and says that he wanted to stretch out the time of the “respite” before her nightly visit so as to put off as long as possible the consequent despair when it would be over.
An eloquent contemporary imagining of manipulating adjacent moments occurs in Steven Millhauser’s short story “Getting Closer.” Here, Jimmy, the protagonist, a boy of almost 10, defines for himself the point at which his much loved day at Indian Cove will begin—the moment when he enters the river. But on his way to stepping in, he also realizes that the unwanted ending of the day is embedded in its delicious beginning, and so he tries, like Proust’s Marcel, to extend the time before the moment of entering the water, because “. . . when you begin,” he thinks, “you’re using things up.”
My definition of moment now presents itself:
A moment is the shortest span of time that can be represented in art.
I see moments as the particles of Time. And if there are waves of Time, perhaps they should be called whiles. We say, in a moment, when we really mean, in a short while.
Along these lines, I’m hoping that my next essay will appear here in a moment.