Max Beckmann planned to paint a ninth and final triptych called "The Artists," with the left panel representing painting, the right panel music, and the middle panel, with its central, garlanded figure, poetry. He was moved by a dream to rename it The Argonauts, after the heroes of Greek mythology who traveled with Jason in search of the Golden Fleece. Beckmann's middle panel has at its center the poet Orpheus, at his right Jason, and at his left the sea god Glaucus, who in one ancient account foretells the future to Jason and Orpheus. The woman brandishing a sword in the left panel represents Medea, and the women in the right panel serve as a chorus.
The painting's title may also allude to a group of poets and painters with whom Beckmann associated during his years in Amsterdam, 1937-47, who called themselves "the Argonauts." Indeed, multiple references to Beckmann's art and his life are evident throughout the three panels, making The Argonauts a complex autobiographical allegory as well as a broader allegory of the life of the artist; a saga of worldly travail and eternal reward.