Gustave Moreau (1826 - 1898)
In pictorial art Gustave Moreau is equivalent to Charles Beaudelaire, whose strange and fascinating poems strike much the same note as the tortured, subtilised, morbid but mysterious and captivating creations of Moreau. Every one of his works stands in need of a commentary, and bears witness to a profound and peculiar activity of mind.
He "gives ear to dying strains, rising faintly, inaudible to the majority of men. Marvelous beings pass before him, fantastic and yet earnest. An age which went wild over Cabanel and Bouguereau could not possibly be in sympathy with him" ... and "it is only since the mysterious smile of Leonardo's women has once more drawn the world beneath its spell that the spirit of Moreau in art has become a familiar thing."
Born in Paris in 1825, this strange artist early fell under the influence of Delacroix and his own friend, Chasseriau. Pursuing his studies in Rome, he imitated such painters as Montegna and Signorelli. He exhibited little, and did not become known until toward the end of his life. The only modern painters with whom he can be compared are Burne-Jones and Puvis de Chavannes.
In most of his work a complete absence of motion has, says Richard Muther, "taken the place of the striding legs, the attitudes of the fencing-master, the arms everlastingly raised to heaven, and the passionately distorted faces which had reigned in French painting since David. He makes spiritual expression his starting point, and not scenic effect. Everything bears the seal of supernatural peace; everything is inspired by inward life and suppressed passion. Even when the gods fight there are no mighty gestures; with a mere frown they can shake the earth like Zeus."
Before the discovery of the famous Cyprus statues no artist would have ventured to adorn a Grecian goddess with flowers, hairpins and a heavy tiara. Attracted to these discoveries, Moreau has been governed by strangely exotic inspirations. He is said to have worked in his studio "as in a tower opulent with ivory and jewels." He delights in arraying his figures in the most costly materials, as the Cyprus discoveries give him warrant for doing, in painting their robes in the deepest hues, and lavishly adorning their arms and breasts. "Every figure of his is a glittering idol. .. . The capricious generation of the Renaissance occasionally treated classical subjects in this manner, but there is the same difference between Filippino Lippi and Gustave Moreau as there is between Botticelli and Burne-Jones : the former, like Shakespeare in
the Midsummer Night's Dream, transformed the antique into a blithe and fantastic world, whereas the fire of yearning romance burns in the pictures of Moreau."
His "Orpheus" is one of his most characteristic and strangely attractive creations, just as those dealing with Salome, in their bizarre sentiment - suggestive of an opium dream - are perhaps his most imaginative.
When Moreau died in 1898, he left his eight thousand pictures in water-color and in oil to his native city of Paris to form the Musee Moreau in the Rue de la Rochefoucauld. The most notable of his paintings are "Jason," "Death of the Young Man," "Prometheus," "Hesiod and the Muses," "The Sphinx," and "The Vision of Salome," in the Luxembourg. From 1892 to 1898 he was professor in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. At the age of forty-nine he received the Cross of the Legion of Honor.