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Gustave Moreau

French Painter

Gustave Moreau Photo
Movements and Styles: Symbolism, Orientalism

Born: April 6, 1826 - Paris, France

Died: April 18, 1898 - Paris, France

"I believe neither in what I touch nor what I see. I only believe in what I do not see, and solely in what I feel."

Gustave Moreau Signature

Summary of Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau's visionary paintings speak to an obsession with the otherworldly, the macabre, and the life of the imagination which resonates across the recent centuries, making him one of the most fascinating of 19th-century painters for modern audiences. Guided partly by his unusual religious faith - which has been called Neo-Platonist, stressing the imperfection and impermanence of the physical world -Moreau set about capturing the products of his imagination on canvas with photographic accuracy. He believed that by so doing, he was allowing divine vision to speak through his brush. Moreau's paintings, normally depicting moments from biblical or mythic narratives, are populated with ambiguous visual symbols - which he took to represent certain desires and emotions in abstract forms - with divine and mortal beings locked in conflict, and with strange visions of sex and suffering. His art predicts not only subsequent movements such as Symbolism (of which he was a forerunner) and Surrealism, but also the peculiar concerns of our own era, seen to have given free rein to the darkest and most submerged impulses of the human mind.

Key Ideas

By emphasising the importance of imagination to artistic creation, Moreau set himself against the two dominant currents in French painting when he began working in the 1850s: on the one hand, the Realism of Gustave Courbet, which stressed the depiction of real people and subject matter, and on the other, Naturalism, whose concern with capturing precisely what the eye saw culminated in the formal innovations of Impressionism.
Many of Moreau's paintings show Christian symbols and figures interacting with Classical and other pagan elements. In so doing, they express a synthetic - or syncretic - religious imagination which would be common to much art of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and which also predicts the many cults and new-age religions that follow.
Moreau's paintings frequently depict two figures locking eyes, their faces and gazes mirroring one another. Often, these forms represent divine and earthly passion in conflict, and are presented as male and female respectively. This technique of mirroring two faces has been seen to predict early-20th-century psychoanalysis in stressing the duality of the human mind: the idea that multiple characters and impulses, some visible, some invisible, might inhabit the same body.
Moreau's interest in depicting femme fatale women and physically delicate, androgynous seeming men, was echoed in fin-de-siècle and Decadent aesthetics - we can see Moreau-type figures, for example, in the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley - and in some ways resembles the unpicking of male and female archetypes in our own era.
Gustave Moreau Photo

Gustave Moreau was born in Paris to a wealthy middle-class family in 1826. His father, an architect, ensured that Moreau received an education in the classics, while his mother, a talented musician, doted on him due to his poor health as a child. She later recalled that he drew incessantly from the age of 8. When he was 13, his sister Camille died, and Moreau was taken out of school because of illness. When he was 15, he visited Italy and quickly developed a keen interest in art, particularly that of Greco-Roman and Byzantine antiquity and the early Italian Renaissance. Later, at around the age of 18, he studied with François-Édouard Pico, the Neoclassical painter, and prepared for the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

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