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The Art of Gustave Moreau

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 Frédéric 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 Danaë 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 Émile Lévy, and got to know Élie Delaunay, Léon 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 Velázquez’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.



The great number of graphic works in the Musée Gustave Moreau demonstrates Gustave Moreau’s passion for drawing and the key role it played in creating a painting, from the first draft to the final refinements of the transfer process using tracing paper and squaring up.
Moreau’s drawing was Neo-Classical in style. It was characterised by his search for beautiful arabesques that conformed to precise canons found in the work of artists from the first half of the 19th century who had attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. From his years of training he retained a drawing method that was similar to that of David, Ingres and Chassériau, who introduced him to the technique of portrait drawings.
Moreau also took inspiration from the natural world, hence the numerous studies of animals, rapidly produced and sketched from life.

He was extremely erudite, taking his sources from classical models and books of engravings or photographs. Moreover, he had every edition of Le Magasin Pittoresque, a magazine that provided him with an inexhaustible source of models.
He was an assiduous visitor to exhibitions and to the print room of the Bibliothèque Nationale, then known as the Royal Library, and subsequently as the Imperial Library. Here, he consulted collections of Indian and Persian miniatures, and studied Renaissance engravings. Like many of his contemporaries, he collected Japanese prints. All these sources frequently crop up in his notes on the drawings.
He used graphite pencil (lead), black pencil, charcoal and, particularly before 1860, red chalk. He also produced pen and ink drawings, and was skilled with tracing paper, which he used to transfer his drawings right up to the full-size cartoon for the final painting. 

The artist put into his watercolours all his variations, his artistic secrets, and private innovations that he did not dare present to the public. At times Moreau was aware that, in this supposedly minor medium, he obtained results that he sought in vain to achieve in more complicated paintings: “It is strange: today’s small watercolour has shown me so clearly that I only achieve something noteworthy when I work on it in a looser, more abandoned way”. Whereas most paintings require a knowledgeable explanation to convey their meaning, watercolours offer, above all else, the beauty of their colours to the viewer. Here Moreau perfectly illustrates the advice he often gave to his pupils: “You must think through colour, and imaginatively”.


Gustave Moreau and Symbolism

Symbolism, in the strictest sense of the word, consisted of a close-knit literary circle with a manifesto published in the Figaro by Jean Moréas in 1886. Their desire to free themselves from the Rationalist thinking demanded by science, was shared by many 19th century artists. Rejecting all Realism and all Naturalism, this cultural movement spread throughout Europe at the end of the 19th century.
Just before he died, Gustave Moreau would say, in 1897, that all his life he had been unjustly accused of being too literary for a painter. Moreau remained convinced that “divination, the intuition of things, belongs to the artist or poet alone”. In claiming to be a history painter, Moreau breathed new life into this moribund genre. He who hated above all else the "art of the wine merchant" deliberately gave his art a spiritual dimension.
Taking the traditions of the past as his basis, he would force himself to express his “inner flashes of intuition”, and to give a preeminent role to imagination. As André Breton so rightly said, his genius was to have given new life to classical and biblical myths. With a bold accumulation of detail and unprecedented skill with line and colour, Moreau sought, above all, to preserve the mystery of his creation. It was therefore no surprise when the Surrealists claimed to be his successors.


Gustave Moreau and Fauvism

“Study Nature and the Old Masters; they alone will enable you to create.” Gustave Moreau.

On his deathbed, the painter Elie Delaunay, with whom Moreau had remained friends since his trip to Italy (1857-1859), asked that Gustave Moreau should take over his teaching post at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Delaunay died in 1891, and Moreau was appointed in January 1892. He worked there until his death, teaching a total of 125 pupils, including painters as famous as Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Henri Evenepoel, Charles Camoin, Albert Marquet, etc.

As well as than the pupils at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he also had a follower in George Desvallières, co-founder of the Autumn Salon of 1903. It seems that Moreau’s studio had been the ideal crucible to create that centre of dissidence that was the1905 Autumn Salon, dubbed the "cage aux fauves" (Cage of Wild Beasts) by the critic Louis Vauxcelles. This exhibition featured many of Moreau’s pupils, particularly René Piot, Georges Rouault, Paul Baignières, Charles Guérin, Henri Matisse and George Desvallières.

Moreau’s talents as a speaker, and the freedom he gave them, with the single imperative for each to develop his own personality, ensured his great popularity. Accounts of the pupils’ enthusiastic praise for the Master were many. Georges Rouault paid unreserved tribute to Moreau’s constant care to respect the individual personality of each artist. Matisse in turn would recognise his debt to Moreau “One of my friends persuaded me that there was nothing to be learned from the Ecole de Rome, and so I set to work following my own inclinations. I was greatly assisted in this by getting to know Gustave Moreau when I enrolled at his studio…”

Unlike his colleagues, Moreau wanted to know each of his pupils personally. He who had spent so much time studying the masters, encouraged his pupils to go to the Louvre. Matisse would say that it was an almost revolutionary approach for the time to make them go to the museum. On his death, his pupil René Piot was inconsolable: “His words gave me such sustenance that there are times when their absence leaves me bitterly stifled.” This sentiment was shared by them all.


Gustave Moreau and Abstraction

When this museum opened in 1903, the first visitors were amazed by the huge number of sketches. The aesthete Robert de Montesquiou warned them: “You won’t find any of his finished works there”, while a critic denounced “the current mania for the sketch and unfinished works.” It was only in the 1960s that people began to take an interest in these sketches.

An unsuspecting forerunner of a new movement in art, Gustave Moreau spoke, at the end of his life, of the happiness of a hard won emancipation. “Now that I no longer have any desire to defend myself, nor want to prove anything to anyone, I have reached that salutary state of delightful humility as regards my old masters from the past, and can enjoy the unique pleasure of expressing myself freely, without external constraint.” Freed from the weight of tradition, Gustave Moreau then moved towards a daring “tachiste” interpretation of certain subjects without moving away totally from the traditional themes of history painting. The watercolour The Temptation of Saint Anthony is a perfect example of this new direction.
Moreau kept a great number of paintings, watercolours and palettes that today we are quick to call abstracts, but which were never shown in his lifetime. It was only when the museum opened that these painted sketches were framed and exhibited, mainly on the ground floor.
In the absence of any explanation by the artist, their interpretation still remains a mystery.