Humbert was a painter, inter alia, of classical themes (one of the reasons he got the job to paint his celebrated history cycle in the Panthéon in Paris) – and see the example, below, on a Homeric theme; or look up his Deianira and the Centaur (1877) online.
The present picture is another of these paintings on the theme of Greek myth: the Orphic lyre prominent in the foreground is the giveaway. It’s an ancient Greek instrument, and particularly associated with either the god Apollo and Orpheus, his devotee and (in some accounts) priest. See the Roman mosaic of Orpheus, where in addition to his lyre he is depicted wearing another traditional attribute of Opheus, the red Phrygian cap (as is the figure in this painting).
Here we see Orpheus mourning the death of Eurydice and his failed attempt to rescue her from the Underworld. The mourning is suggested by the black cloth that has been discarded with the lyre, and the fact that Orpheus is bearded: not shaving was a sign of mourning in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds until the time of Hadrian. His tunic (or ‘chiton’) seems to be based on ancient Greek vase painting.
Around him, being comprehensively ignored, are the Ciconian women (from southern Thrace), the devotees of the rival god Dionysos. After Orpheus’s return from the Underworld, they tried unavailingly to seduce him and interest him in their orgiastic rites. Orpheus consistently spurned them. They would eventually kill him by tearing him to pieces. The river in the picture may be intended to be the River Hebrus, which flows through Thrace, and into which his dismembered body was thrown by his killers. The ominous figure in black creeping up behind him may well be an emblematic figure of imminent death.
Professor John Adamson
Jacques Ferdinand Humbert was a student at the École des Beaux-arts de Paris, trained under the direction of Alexandre Cabanel, François Edouard Picot and Eugène Fromentin. He exhibited regularly at the Salon where he was awarded numerous medals. He received a number of commissions from the state for murals such as those from the Pantheon; he also executed decorative panels for the town hall of the 15th arrondissement of Paris as well as remarkable paintings on the ceiling of the Petit Palais. Ferdinand Humbert had a highly regarded career as a social portrait painter. His portrait of Colette, then 23 years old, is undoubtedly the one that will remain the most famous.