Lethe, or Oblivion

Lethe

plaster, 1903
Museum purchase

Unknown for the century before its rediscovery in 2003, this sculpture depicts the mythological river of the Greek Underworld, Lethe, also known as the Waters of Oblivion. Possibly intended for a cemetery monument, the sculpture’s nudity and reclining pose suggest that she is a river, reinforced by the long, wet hair flowing down her back. The tree stump, the cut, inverted poppies, and her eyes closed in dreamy sleep are traditional allusions to death.

In Greek mythology, dying souls drink of the river’s waters and forget about their former lives. Ovid describes the river Lethe in the story of Ceyx and Alcyone. As an art student in Paris, Dallin would have almost certainly been aware of Charles Baudelaire’s erotic poem, “Le Léthé,” from his collection Flowers of Evil. Dallin greatly admired his teacher Henri Michel Chapu (1833-1891), the sculptor of a famous kneeling Joan of Arc, as well as two crouching deities of the Underworld, Hades and Persephone. This suppressed masterpiece may have been created as an homage to Chapu.