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Gustave Moreau

French Painter

Gustave Moreau Photo
Born: April 6, 1826
Paris, France
Died: April 18, 1898
Paris, France
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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

Biography of Gustave Moreau

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.

Important Art by Gustave Moreau

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864)

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864)

This painting, which marks the beginning of Moreau's mature period, offered a daring new interpretation of a famous scene from Greek mythology. The tragic hero Oedipus is accosted en route from Corinth to Thebes - where, having just killed his father Laius, he will marry his mother Jocasta in unwitting fulfilment of divine prophecy - by a fabulous beast with the head and breasts of a woman, the ornate plumage of a bird of prey, the body of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. As the creature claws her way up his nude body, Oedipus and the sphinx hold each other's gaze.

The neo-classical painter Ingres had depicted the same subject in Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx (1808), and Moreau's version pays homage to the older artist while offering several points of formal and thematic departure. In contrast to Ingres's direct treatment of a key scene from the Oedipus narrative - the confident, muscled protagonist leaning forwards to solve the sphinx's riddle, thus saving his own life and liberating the citizens of Thebes from her curse - Moreau offers a density and obscurity of symbolic detail well beyond the inherited tropes of history painting. Through suggestive but ambiguous features such as the fig tree at bottom-left, the butterfly and chalice to Oedipus's right, and the snake twining around the pedestal, Moreau presents a scene which seems to exist outside the naturalistic, time-bound realm of historical and mythic narrative, instead occupying a strange and timeless dream-world.

In composing the piece, Moreau opted for a deliberately archaic effect, emulating early Renaissance painters such as Andrea Mantegna. Both the steep spires of rock in the background, for example, and what the critic Peter Cooke calls the "wiry, linear style" of the composition, suggest Mantegna's influence. Other critics have suggested biographical and sociological influences on the painting. Moreau's father had died a few months before he began the piece, just as Oedipus's father has died, shortly before the scene depicted. The dominant body language of the sphinx, meanwhile - clawing her way up the hero's chest - has been seen to express fears of the growing political and cultural influence of women in mid-19th-century France.

This work marks a new direction both for Moreau and for French painting in general. As well as rejecting the contemporary tropes of Realism and Naturalism, Moreau predicted, and in a sense established, some of the key concepts of Symbolist art, by presenting various seemingly allegorical but stubbornly enigmatic compositional motifs. The realistic representation of dream-like imagery, as well as the subject's later treatment by Sigmund Freud, made this an important work for Surrealist artists such as André Breton.

Orpheus (1865)

Orpheus (1865)

This painting, composed a year after the appearance of Oedipus and the Sphinx at the Paris Salon, which brought Moreau sudden popular and critical acclaim, turns again to Greek mythology for its source-material. Orpheus was a legendary musician whose lyre could hypnotise and charm humans, animals, and gods. Killed and dismembered by Maenads - frenzied female worshippers of Dionysus - his head washes ashore on the Greek island of Lesbos, where it is discovered by a mysterious young woman.

The story of Orpheus is treated extensively in classical sources such as Ovid's Metamorphoses. It was also the subject of paintings by Moreau's contemporaries, including Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Émile Lévy. But whereas a work like Lévy's Death of Orpheus (c. 1970), showing the hero attacked and floored by dangerous, voluptuous women, offers an emphatic and somewhat one-dimensional mood, Moreau's piece resists easy emotional or moral responses. Its ambiguities revolve around those of the female figure, who seems both respectfully mournful and subtly dangerous. As Symbolist scholar Rosina Naginsky states, "the girl's demure head, with its chaste hairstyle, is contradicted by the sensual, fetishistic appeal that her naked feet offered contemporary male viewers. Is she a Muse or a Maenad, a holy woman or a femme fatale?" That last reading is implied especially by the allusion to the story of Salome in the way she stares directly at the decapitated head. In incorporating this suggestion, Moreau demonstrated his ability to mix the tropes of classical and biblical narrative, while, by implying that Orpheus's mourner might also be his attacker, he rendered the moment depicted in the painting ambiguous, transgressing the typical narrative clarity of 19th-century historical and mythical painting.

Like Oedipus and the Sphinx, this painting represents something of a turning point both for French visual art and for Moreau's personal style. Aspects of the concept and composition - the depiction of a decapitated head, the focus on a 'femme fatale' - predict key elements of the Symbolist aesthetic. Later artists such as Odilon Redon would represent the disembodied head as an image of imaginative spirit freed from earthly constraint, while many Symbolist artists were engrossed with the idea of the powerful, dangerous female. Like Oedipus and the Sphinx, Orpheus depicts two faces, one male and one female, staring down and mirroring one another. This would become a key motif of Moreau's work.

The Apparition (1876)

The Apparition (1876)

In this painting epitomising the Symbolist and fin-de-siècle obsession with the biblical story of John the Baptist, Moreau depicts the Judaean princess Salome, who danced provocatively for her father King Herod to win the head of John the Baptist for her mother, Herodias. However, as in many of Moreau's paintings, it is unclear what point in the story this work depicts. Is Salome experiencing a premonition of her seduction's grizzly outcome, or is this a ghostly reminder of a deed already committed?

The Apparition is, in biographical terms, the product of a period of isolation and creative crisis. After severe criticism of his two paintings Prometheus and Europe in the 1869 Salon, Moreau had retreated to the studio to reassess his work. At the same time, in composing the painting he was channelling his reading in orientalist literature, and treatments of the Salome story by writers such as Gustave Flaubert, whose descriptions of the princess in Salammbô (1862) might have influenced Moreau's choice of robes and head-dress. Representations of this archetypal 'femme fatale' in early Renaissance painting, and by contemporary painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Henri Regnault, were probably also points of reference. Moreau enriched this meshwork of allusions with references to Indian and Asian art, dress and architecture and his characteristic surfeit of strange symbolic detail - notably in the weird iconography of Salome's jewellery - to generate the kind of mysterious, exotic mood typical of Symbolist painting.

The mystery of the scene is enhanced by elements of the formal composition, particularly the curious posture of the anti-heroine, which at once suggests her mid-dance and in a position of priestly stasis. The rest of the scene is populated by grave, static figures, which, in combination with the diverse cultural sources for the setting, adds to that mysterious sense so often conveyed by Moreau's painting that the scene depicted lies outside narrative history and linear time. The choice of watercolor was idiosyncratic but revelatory, allowing Moreau to portray features such as the dripping blood with mimetic accuracy.

This painting marks a movement away from the large, centrally placed figures of Moreau's first mature works such as Oedipus and the Sphinx and Orpheus, instead placing a larger number of small figures within a richly detailed architectural setting, an arrangement characteristic of his middle period. Once again, male and female protagonists lock gazes with an intensity suggesting an eternal battle between spirit and flesh, a key motif in Moreau's oeuvre. In terms of its wider impact, this painting caused a sensation when displayed in the 1876 Salon, and influenced the subsequent development of Symbolism in both art and literature, particularly after Joris-Karl Huysmans lavished praise on the painting in his genre-defining novel À Rebours (1884).

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

"Gustave Moreau Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 10 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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