Gustave Moreau

Although threatened by the fleeting truths of modern experience that artists like Manet, Degas, or Monet elected to paint, classical mythology, like a proper education in Greek and Latin, remained a cornerstone of nineteenth-century art and culture, propagated by the academies and illustrated in countless official paintings. It was also subject to intensely personal, even perverse interpretations that could use ancient legends to trigger voyages during which the cold marble facts of ancient sculpture, venerated and slavishly copied in the art schools, would evaporate into the strangest mists. So it was with Gustave Moreau’s odd visions of antiquity, opium dreams of his own invention. His Orpheus of 1865, when shown at the Salon the following year, needed the artist’s own verbal explanation in the catalogue to clarify his deviation from more orthodox depictions of the legend. The inventor of music so beautiful it could charm man and beast, Orpheus had met a gruesome end when he was torn to pieces by the enraged women of Thrace (whose love he had rejected), his head and lyre thrown into a stream. This ferocious group murder could, in fact, be seen at the same Salon of 1866 in a painting by Emile Levy. But Moreau imagined instead a later moment of erotic contemplation rather than one of overt physical violence, conjuring up a “young girl who reverently recovers Orpheus’s head and lyre.” In Moreau’s painting, this Thracian maiden now stares as if hypnotized by her strange captive, a disembodied head fused with the musical instrument he played as he sang. Seen through a misty scrim of twilight tones, this morbid vision wafts us off to what the dean of Surrealism, Andre Breton, would later admire as a “somnambulistic world.”
Indeed, Moreau might well be credited as a pioneer in the opening of hazy, disquieting vistas that could begin to plumb the depths of that subconscious fantasy life so prominent in the art and thought of the twentieth century. Supported by a study of Leonardo’s otherworldly landscapes of distant waters and strange, almost translucent grottoes, Moreau invented a magical environment where we are not surprised to find bizarre shifts in size (the piping shepherds on the rocks above) or even a pair of what look like prehistoric tortoises in the right foreground, probably an allusion to the myth that their shells were used in the invention of the lyre.

Though partly prophesied by Chasseriau and partly shared by such contemporaries as Burne-Jones and Puvis de Chavannes, Moreau’s floating world of cultivated inward sensation and fantasy was remarkably precocious, a voice in the wilderness that announced the more concerted explorations of morbid, inward reverie found in the Symbolist domain of the 1890s. By the end of the century, a vast international repertory of drugged silence, introspective mythmaking, decapitated heads, and demonic women could trace its ancestry back to Moreau’s first hallucinatory paintings of the 1860s.

The Art of Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau was a French Symbolist painter known for his jewel-like depictions of mythological and religious subject matter. In his work Salom? Dancing before Herod (1876), Moreau emphasized both the eroticism and ornamental aspects of the scene with heavy impasto and glints of bright color. “The expression of human feelings and the passions of man certainly interest me deeply,” he once explained. “But I am less concerned with expressing the motions of the soul and mind than to render visible, the inner flashes of intuition which have something divine in their apparent insignificance and reveal magic, even divine horizons, when they are transposed into the marvelous effects of pure plastic art.” Born on April 6, 1826 in Paris, France, he studied at the ?cole des Beaux-Arts before taking private courses under the painter Th?odore Chass?riau, whose work Moreau profoundly admired. Travelling to Italy in 1857, he studied paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Giovanni Bellini over a two year period. Along with his influence on the younger Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, Moreau was also notably the professor of Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault at the ?cole des Beaux-Arts. He died on April 18, 1898 in Paris, France. In 1903, the Mus?e National Gustave Moreau opened to the public in Paris. Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of the Mus?e d’Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among others.


With his Academic, Romantic and Italianised styles, Gustave Moreau could only be an eclectic artist, borrowing, like so many of his successful fellow artists, the constituent elements of an impersonal style. There are times when Michelangelo’s prototype of an ephebe can be detected in his figures or when the bluish backgrounds and chiaroscuro of Leonardo da Vinci are a little too evident. But mostly, these references, along with a taste for the sinuous lines of Indian miniatures and a precision of line and shape inspired by a thousand and one models collected from engravings, all combine in the end, blending inextricably to form original, highly individualised creations, that resemble no other. Moreau believed that painting was, by definition, a rich art, which should aim to rival the intense colours of enamel painting: a work like Jupiter and Semele is an excellent example of this principle.

For Moreau, as for da Vinci and Poussin, artists he liked to refer to, painting was a cosa mentale. It does not seek to recreate on canvas an observation of nature but first and foremost addresses the spirit, and comes from the innermost depths of the artist. Moreau wanted to create a body of work where, in his own words, the soul could find: all the aspirations of dreams, tenderness, love, enthusiasm and religious ascent towards the higher spheres, where everything in it is elevated, inspiring, moral and beneficent; where all is imaginative and impulsive soaring off into sacred, unknown, mysterious lands. Moreau’s painting is meant to inspire dreams rather than thought. It seeks to transport the viewer into another world.

Even in his choice of subjects, Moreau wanted to distance himself from the facts of reality and experience. A deeply religious person, although non-practising, he felt that painting, a mirror of physical beauty, also reflected the great fervour of the soul, the spirit, the heart and the imagination, and had fulfilled the divine needs of mankind throughout time.

“It is the language of God! One day the eloquence of this silent art will be appreciated. I have lavished all my care and endeavour on this eloquence, whose character, nature and spiritual power have never been satisfactorily defined. The evocation of thought through line, arabesque and technique: this is my aim.”

Gustave Moreau in Italy

On 18 October 1857, Moreau left for Italy, a place he had longed to see since his two failures to win the Prix de Rome (in 1848 and 1849). This trip for him was truly a mission to re-energise the history painting of his time, which he considered superficial and limited. Aware that he needed to perfect his means of expression to achieve this objective, he decided to immerse himself once again in the origins of the art of the past to find ways of giving back history painting its content. For his Italian journey, the young painter chose the usual route of the Grand Tour. But his approach was certainly not that of a tourist: each town visited was, for him, a stage in his meticulous programme of artistic research.
In Rome, where he stayed on his arrival, he encountered Renaissance fresco decoration and the masterpieces of Antiquity. At the Villa Farnesina, he made a tempera copy of a detail of Sodoma’s Wedding of Alexander and Roxane. This study, like many others he produced in Italy, would add to a repertoire of models to which Moreau would turn throughout his career. Accompanied by his travelling companion, the painter Fr?d?ric de Courcy, he did not waste a single minute of his time. After an extended stay at the Sistine Chapel, where he copied part of the ceiling, he shut himself away in the Academy of Saint Luke. Here, he produced his bravura piece: a tempera copy on card of Raphael’s Putto, which an English lord offered to buy. However, Moreau preferred not part with his Putto, which, from then on, he referred to as his “child”. After the Academy of Saint Luke, he stopped at the Borghese Palace, where he was attracted by the colours in a painting by Veronese: Saint Anthony and His Sermon to the Fishes. This interest in colour and a glowing richness of tone brought him to Corregio’s Dana? and Raphael’s Portrait of a Man, which he mistakenly thought to be by Holbein. After their sessions at the museums, Moreau and de Courcy would go to the “evening academy” at the Villa Medici, which provided a good place to study and an ideal opportunity to meet other artists, particularly those who were not pensionnaires. They could thus perfect their technique and their knowledge of human anatomy, as models would come to sit for them every day between 7pm and 8.30pm in the ground floor rooms of the Villa. It was here that Moreau met up again with his old friends from the Picot studio such as ?mile L?vy, and got to know ?lie Delaunay, L?on Bonnat and the young Edgar Degas. With the arrival of spring, Gustave fell in love with the beauty of Rome and its surrounding areas. This was when he produced his remarkable landscapes in sepia and watercolour. Moreau stayed in the Eternal City until early summer 1858.
He then went to Florence, where he intended to work on his oil painting and drawing. However, the first painting that attracted his attention was The Battle of Cadore, considered at the time to be a sketch by Titian, and of which he made a large copy. His interest in the work of the Venetian master was borne out by two other copies produced in the Uffizi Gallery from portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. However, Gustave did not ignore the Florentine painters, and carefully copied the Angel painted by Leonardo da Vinci in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ. His sketchbooks quickly filled with studies of works by the Tuscan masters, from the Primitives to the Mannerists.
By August, Moreau was en route for Lugano, to meet his parents who had come to join him. Once together, they spent a few days in Milan, where the artist studied Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings at the Ambrosiana, and copied Titian’s watercolour of the Adoration of the Magi.
The trip continued towards Venice, where the Moreau family settled in September. Gustave was enchanted by Carpaccio’s paintings in the Academy and in the chapel of Saint George of the Slaves, where he produced an impressive number of copies after Carpaccio’s The Legend of Saint Ursula and the narrative Cycle of Saint Georges. Before Christmas, he was back in Florence where Edgar Degas was impatient to show him Botticelli’s Spring. Gustave, however, preferred the Birth of Venus, and made a small copy of it. It was probably during this second stay that he turned towards Dutch art, copying Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles V at the Uffizi Gallery and Vel?zquez’s Equestrian Portrait of Phillip IV at the Pitti Palace.
After a three day visit to Pisa and Siena with Degas, Moreau came back to Rome at the end of March 1859. Here, he finished some of the work he had left uncompleted during his first stay, and produced a large copy of Poussin’s The Death of Germanicus, a painting now in the Palazzo Barbarini. In July, the Moreau family set sail for Naples, not without difficulty (the war for the Unification of Italy had just broken out), on the final stage of their Italian trip. While in Naples the artist was able to improve his knowledge of classical art, focusing on the sculptures and murals from Pompeii in the Museo Borbonico (now the Museo Nazionale), of which he made several copies. On 21 September 1859, Moreau left Italy for good. He would look back with nostalgia at his time here for the rest of his life.