Sometimes we see things in paintings that are strange and appear unexplained. If you’ve come across Gustave Moreau’s painting of Orpheus (1865), you will have noticed that there are a couple of tortoises in the right foreground.
The only explanation that I could find in the literature is that “they may be read as symbols of immortality (but also of silence)” (Cooke, p 62), leaving me more puzzled than before. So here is a short pictorial journey to discover more about the significance of tortoises in paintings.
Outside Europe, and particularly in east Asia, tortoises have a long and glorious history of depiction in art. One relatively recent example is Shibata Zeshin’s Jurōjin, Deer and Tortoises in a Landscape (1889), where three tortoises seem to have swept up at speed towards the wizened figure of Jurōjin; compared with the static deer, they are part of an enigmatic reversal of reality.
In European painting, they have inevitably appeared in portraits as new faunas have been discovered, as in Albert Eckhout’s Study of Two Brazilian Tortoises (c 1640).
They appear occasionally in still life paintings too, where they are probably one of the most appropriate animals for the genre. Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Musical Instruments (1623) seems an ideal setting, matching the shape of the body of a lute, and the colour of wood.
Felix Esterl’s Still life with Skinned Hare, Chicken, Fish and Turtle (1929) provides more worrying company for a tortoise or turtle.
In ancient times, tortoises have had a more fundamental role in the cosmos, almost as much as in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where Great A’Tuin is a vast turtle who bears four huge elephants, who in turn bear Discworld itself. Marco Marchetti’s Putti with a Tortoise (1556-58) is more modest in its ambitions.
The Romans and Greeks of Classical times associated the tortoise with love, and reproductive fertility, and even made the animal an attribute of Aphrodite. That may explain the goal of Marchetti’s putti, and the diminutive tortoise crawling across the lap of these Elegant Lovers in about 1550.
It might also provide a reason for Félicien Rops including a prominent tortoise with butterfly wings in his ribald The Love Fair (The Cage) (1878-81). However, Rops is, as ever, determined not to provide us with a simple reading.
There are two well-known stories involving tortoises that might be relevant.
The first is Æsop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, who race against one another. Although the hare is much faster, the tortoise is more persistent, and eventually wins. This is one of relatively few paintings showing this race, by Frans Snyders: The Fable of the Hare and the Tortoise from 1600-57.
There’s also a group of tales concerning tortoises being dropped by birds, including the claim that the playwright Æschylus was killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle, an event that doesn’t appear to have been shown in a history painting. In the early 1880s, Moreau painted an illustration to one of la Fontaine’s fables involving a tortoise and two ducks. In this, the tortoise is taken into the air while holding a stick in its mouth, until it speaks in self-admiration; it then falls to the ground and its shell is smashed.
Tortoises also appear sporadically in situations where their presence seems almost gratuitous. In Vincenzo Carducci’s The Vision of Dionisio Rickel, the Carthusian (1626-32), a black cat is playing with a tortoise, and hinting strongly at allegory. If the cat represents the devil, the hard-shelled tortoise might perhaps indicate invulnerability to the wiles of the devil? Dionisio Cartujano (1402-1471), or Denys van Leeuwen, or Denis de Rickel, or Denis the Carthusian, was a pious and ascetic Carthusian monk who wrote more than 150 works, including a complete Bible commentary. He was responsible for building a monastery in ‘s-Hertogenbosch when Hieronymus Bosch was a young man there.
Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636–1695) painted this huge Portrait of Three Children in a Landscape with Game in the latter half of the 1600s. The children appear to have taken to field sports at a very early age, and have here amassed an impressive ‘kill’, with their muzzle-loading gun, although I hope that an unseen adult may have had a hand in its use. The lone tortoise being ignored by each of the children and dogs is slowly crawling its way towards them, as if it has just emerged into the wrong painting. Perhaps d’Hondecoeter just liked tortoises.
John William Godward used the tortoise in one of his aesthetic paintings, The Quiet Pet (1906). One of his languidly beautiful women is seen in repose, offering a couple of cherries to her small pet tortoise, as a means of passing the time. I am unsure whether we should try to read anything more into the painting, but it begs the question as to whether the artist saw the tortoise or the woman as the quiet pet, and whether the offer of cherries should be interpreted any further.
My final painting is by far the most important, with the exception of Moreau’s Orpheus, and was an exciting discovery: Osman Hamdi Bey’s magnificent The Tortoise Trainer (1906). Trained in Paris during the 1860s by Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Boulanger, I am sure that they would have been proud of his technique, style, and the work as a whole.
Its ingenious allegory can be read in at least two ways. The artist may have been self-critical of his painstakingly slow work; tortoises are not only inherently slow, but in the early eighteenth century had been used to bear lit candles for evening outings. However, the painting also had a greater political meaning, as the tortoise trainer wears traditional Ottoman religious costume from before the middle of the nineteenth century, and is training the tortoises with a traditional ‘ney’ flute.
In that sense it’s a satire on the slow, faltering, and often ineffective reforms made to the Ottoman Empire during the late nineteenth century. This led to a time of increasing social and political upheaval, preceding the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 which changed the basis of rule in the empire, then after the First World War the empire’s breakup.
In 2004, this painting set a new Turkish record, when it was sold for $3.5 million.
It has been suggested that Osman Hamdi Bey might have been inspired by this print created by “L. Crépon”, of the Tortoise Charmer of 1869.
Having spent a day studying paintings of tortoises and struggling to make sense of them all, I returned to look at Moreau’s Orpheus again. At that time, I wondered if the artist had used the shells of the tortoises to bear his initials and those of his lover; although their shells are quite different from one another, I really can’t see any meaningful lettering.
Gustave Moreau had met his partner, mistress and muse Alexandrine Dureux in about 1860. By the time that he painted Orpheus, he had accommodated her in a nearby flat. If he saw himself in the role of Orpheus, torn apart by Maenad art critics because he refused to worship their gods, maybe Alexandrine was his Thracian woman, and these are the tortoises of their love.
Wikipedia on Osman Hamdi Bey
Wikipedia on The Tortoise Trainer
Cooke P (2014) Gustave Moreau, History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20433 9.