Appreciating Beauty Before It Slips Away: ‘Lost Illusions’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
March 6, 2021 Updated: March 9, 2021

We sometimes let opportunities slip through our grasp, forgetting that our lives are over in the blink of an eye.

I was recently talking to a friend about hindsight. Have you ever thought, “If I could go back in time, I’d do that differently,” or “If I knew then what I know now”?

Such thought experiments can leave us either ready for a more thoughtful future or melancholic about our past.

Charles Gleyre’s painting “Lost Illusions” (also called “The Evening”) illustrates the melancholy and thoughtfulness that can derive from missed opportunities.

“Lost Illusions,” between 1865 and 1867, by Charles Gleyre and Léon Dussart. Oil on canvas, 34 inches by 59 inches. Walters Art Museum. (Public Domain)

Charles Gleyre and ‘Lost Illusions’

Gleyre was a 19th-century Swiss artist who painted mostly in France. He used his academic training to produce romantic paintings, one of which was his most famous, “Lost Illusions.”

“Lost Illusions” was a painting based on a hallucination that Gleyre experienced as a young man on the bank on the Nile during his travels in Egypt. In 1843, at the age of 37—almost 10 years after his hallucination—Gleyre painted “Lost Illusions” and entered it into the French Salon competition, where it received a gold medal and was purchased by the French State.

The version depicted here is a reproduction painted in 1867 by Gleyre and his student, Léon Dussart, upon the request of American businessman and art collector William Thompson Walters.

The painting shows a man to the composition’s right, who lowers his head and slumps his shoulders in sadness. The moon in the purple and yellow sky suggests that it’s dusk, and the light from the setting sun almost silhouettes the man into darkness.

He has placed his lyre on the ground to his side, as he sits on the dock and watches a boat carry away a dozen figures.

The figures, unlike the man, are illuminated in such a way that all of their features are visible; it’s as if a separate light source illuminates them.

All of the figures are women except for Cupid, who steers the boat. The active women play musical instruments, read poetry, and clap their hands. The passive ones listen and watch the others. Cupid drops flower petals into the water as the boat slowly drifts away.  

Appreciating Beauty

There are certain aspects of this painting and its meanings that are obvious. 

The man is sadly watching these women performers sail away. Does this simply represent the man’s watching his youthful desires sail away on the stream of life as he approaches life’s dusk?

Cupid, a typical representation of infatuation and passionate love, is throwing petals into the water as if these petals were missed opportunities for romantic relationships. 

The muse-like women, all representations of the art forms that relay beauty, are drifting away as if the man has missed out on life’s beauties, a loss that blankets him in the melancholia he now experiences.

And what has caused him to miss out on so much? Is it his lyre, which he has now placed to his side? Is it possible that he spent so much time pursuing virtuosity with his lyre that he forgot to live? Was he so distracted that he failed to notice the beauty all around him, beauty he only now recognizes as it flees in the night of life?

All of this may be true, but this interpretation seems to miss a different perspective suggested by the painting’s title. Gleyre refers to all that is “lost” as “illusions.”  

For Romantic artists, illusion was paramount, a necessary balance to the 18th and 19th centuries’ extreme pursuit of scientific truth. Fantasy, imagination, and the beautiful things that captivate the human spirit were cast aside for objective and rational scientific study. 

Perhaps the melancholia experienced by the man isn’t confined to his own loss. Maybe he represents an age that had lost access to the beautiful things that once stirred the human spirit. 

Have these beautiful things—poetry, history, and music—that were once embodied by the muses and characterized so much of the human story cast away by a cold and calculated pursuit of scientific truths? Or, are these muses, feeling like there’s no longer a place for them, setting sail for a place, a time, an age that will appreciate them again? 

Is this why the man sets his lyre to his side? Because there’s a lack of appreciation for his musical pursuits in a world that’s becoming evermore cold, analytic, and scientific? Is this scientific extreme the source of his melancholy? 

Is he nearly silhouetted because scientific truths perceived to be universal obscure his unique individuality inherent in his appreciation of beauty and creative pursuits? Or is he silhouetted because creativity is less about self-expression and more about beauty in and of itself, hence the illumination of the boat’s figures? 

Maybe this painting is not an attack on science per se but a testimony to the loss caused by the extreme of cold, calculated objectification caused by scientism—a loss that we’ll look back on with the adage, “If I knew then what I know now …” 

Perhaps this painting serves as encouragement to look at the future thoughtfully, with a newfound awareness and appreciation for the beauty encapsulated by the human spirit, a beauty the “illusions” of which serve to balance scientific extremes.

The message and its warning is a poignant one and encourages reflection on how we might balance our scientific era, our lives, and our endeavors with an increased appreciation for life’s beauty before it sails over the horizon and forever out of view.

The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).