Nature plays an essential role in the myth of Arion saved from the waters. In order to tell this story, Moreau portrays the musician-poet as an Eastern prince and surrounds him with craggy rocks borrowed from the works of Leonardo da Vinci.
The legend of the Greek lyric poet and musician Arion comes to us from Herodotus. While returning to Corinth after a trip to Sicily, Arion is robbed of his wealth and thrown into the sea by sailors on his ship. Thanks to the intervention of Apollo, a dolphin rescues him and carries him to the shore on its back. The god transforms Arion’s lyre and the dolphin into a constellation in memory of the adventure.
Ancient mythology enabled Gustave Moreau to express “the sublime logic of the imagination” which guided his work. However, the poet distanced himself from what he called “that hackneyed old classical Greek style” and invented a visual universe drawing the daring intensity of his colours and a taste for the arabesque from the most exotic sources ranging from India to Japan.
In the year in which he painted this work for Jules Clément Chaplain, the lithographer, sculptor and medal engraver, Moreau emerged from the isolation of his studio to teach at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts [School of Fine Art]. His students, notably Rouault, Matisse and Marquet, appreciated his open-mindedness and his influence extended beyond the school to artists such as Odilon Redon, George Desvallières and the Belgian Symbolists.