"No one could have less faith in the absolute and definitive importance of the work created by man, because I believe that this world is nothing but a dream..."
French artist Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) is known for his strange and mystical works, often portraying scenes from mythology or religion. Although admired in his time, his works fell out of favor until the 1960s, when there was a revival of interest. Moreau instructed Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault, two famous French artists.
Received Artistic Encouragement
Gustave Moreau was born in Paris on April 6, 1826. His father, Louis-Jean Marie Moreau, born in 1790, was a successful architect for the city of Paris and the Ministry of the Interior. He was head of construction for the Place de la Concorde and a number of other buildings. The artist's mother, Adele Pauline Desmoutier, born in 1802, was the daughter of a chateau owner and former mayor of Douai. Like her husband, she had a comfortable, upper-middle-class childhood. Gustave Moreau had a younger sister, Camille, who died when he was 14 years old.
Moreau attended boarding school, the College Rollin, beginning at age 11 but left when his sister died. At the school, he won an award for draftsmanship. After he left school, his parents educated him at home, where they had a large library of books that Moreau read eagerly, including works on mythology. Moreau also studied Roman architecture, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the artistic themes of the Middle East and Far East, Shakespeare, and the Bible. In 1841, Moreau's mother, aunt, and uncle took him on a trip to Italy, where they visited Turin, Milan, Parma, Pisa, Florence, and Genoa. Moreau's sketchbook from this trip still exists and is kept in the Moreau Museum in Paris.
Moreau knew he wanted to be an artist and his parents supported him in his goal. In the mid-1840s, his parents showed his work to a painter, Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, who also encouraged him. Around 1844, Moreau began to study art with the neoclassical painter and art instructor Francois-Edouard Picot, who gave his student a solid technical foundation for his work. While studying with Picot, Moreau painted studies of nudes, copied Old Masters, and made oil sketches and large paintings.
With Picot, a follower of the artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Moreau got ready for the difficult entrance examinations for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a famous art school in Paris. Anyone who hoped to make a living as an artist in France at that time was expected to attend that school. Moreau gained admission on his first try, and he began studying there in October 1846.
Left the Academy
Serious art students were expected to compete each year for the prestigious Prix de Rome, which was awarded by the Academie des Beaux-Arts and was the highest honor a French art student could win. The award included a four-year scholarship at the Villa Medici in Rome. Moreau entered the competition twice, in 1848 and 1849, losing both times.
Moreau left the academy and struck out on his own, using his father's connections to win several government commissions. He entered the seasonal salons, gaining acceptance at some, failing at others. The government commissioned a work and placed it in a museum in Dijon. Another entry went to a museum in Bourg-en-Bresse. One of these government commissions was the first work Moreau ever exhibited, a Pieta, which was shown in the Salon of 1852 and received favorable reviews from art critics. The annual salons were the official place of exhibition for French artists, run by the Academy of Fine Arts.
In the early 1850s, Moreau met the Romantic painters Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Chasseriau, who greatly influenced his style of painting. From them, Moreau learned to love exotic romanticism, dramatic lighting, and bright colors. Moreau moved next door to Chasseriau and became interested in the latest fashions, often visiting Paris's literary and artistic salons. In 1854, Louis Moreau bought a house on the rue de La Rochefoucauld, number 14, which became the family home, Moreau's studio, and eventually the Gustave Moreau Museum.
Moreau Returned to Italy
Chasseriau's death in 1856, at the age of 37, greatly upset Moreau. Unhappy with his work and saddened by his friend's death, Moreau went to Italy in 1857 to study the methods and work of Renaissance artists and the architectural remains and artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome. He traveled throughout the country, going to Rome, Florence, Siena, Pisa, Milan, Venice, Naples, and Pompeii. Italy's art deeply affected his work. "The trip also exposed him to the influence of Byzantine enamels, early mosaics, and Persian and Indian miniatures, all of which would play a significant role in the evolution of his individual style and in the jewel-like effect of his technique," noted Bennett Schiff in the Smithsonian. "At the Villa Medici in Rome, Moreau met Edgar Degas and traveled around the country with him for a while. They became fast friends, but over time, as their styles diverged, the friendship cooled."
After returning to Paris from Italy in 1859, Moreau met Alexandrine Dureux and they became romantically involved. They never lived together, but he paid her rent on a nearby apartment. Moreau painted for a number of years without exhibiting his work, but during this time he developed his unique style. The colors he used reflected the Romantic style, but his figures were static. He spent many hours studying Persian, Indian, and Japanese prints and from them took motifs, which he used to create his own vision of myths and religions.
Back in the Public Eye
In the Salon of 1864, Moreau exhibited his painting Oedipus and the Sphinx, the work that launched him into prominence. To Moreau, the work represented man facing the eternal mystery with moral strength and self-confidence. "Outstanding examples of psychological and physical detachment can be seen in one after another of Moreau's paintings," wrote Schiff. "In Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), for instance, the winged creature—half nude female, half lion, an incubus clawed into Oedipus' breast— does not seem to inflict pain at all. Instead, the grotesque creature and its placid victim appear to be dreamily engrossed in each other, although Oedipus is soon to answer the Sphinx's riddle and she, or it, is to fall dead to the ground, finally, having already shredded any number of hapless voyagers unable to answer the riddle. Their bits and pieces are, in Moreau's superbly rendered canvas, strewn about the foreground." Finally, Moreau had achieved formal recognition of his talent. From then on, he helped re-energize the tradition of history painting, giving epic tales poetic imagination, exoticism, and wonder.
In the Salon of 1865, Moreau exhibited Young Man and Death and Jason and Medea. In 1866, he showed Orpheus and Diomedes Devoured by his Horses. He exhibited each year in the Salon through 1869, when his works were criticized in the press. After that he sold a few paintings to admirers but rarely left his studio.
In 1876, he began to exhibit in the Salon again, showing three of his most famous paintings: Hercules and the Hydra, Salome Dancing Before Herod, and The Apparition. He last exhibited in the Salon in 1880, showing Galatea and Helen.
Moreau was devoted to Alexandrine Dureux for 31 years, until her death in 1890 at age 54. After her death, Moreau's style altered. "His brushwork became looser and more expressive; his pigment grew thicker, more impastoed; and his forms became increasingly abstract," Schiff wrote. "The overriding effect of these later paintings was to evoke an emotional response through the use of color, line and form. Some even view his later nonfigurative works as heralds of Abstract Expressionism. Certainly his art inspired a generation of Symbolist painters, poets and writers and had a marked impact on other artists, including the Surrealists and the radical group known as the Fauves."
In 1888, Moreau was elected to the Academie des Beaux-Arts. At age 65, he became a professor in charge of a studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was considered the last great teacher there. He taught Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse, and others, developing their natural talents and encouraging them to use color imaginatively.
In 1895, Moreau remodeled his house into a four-story building to create a museum for his works. He died of stomach cancer in Paris on April 18, 1898. Moreau left to the state his home and its contents, about 1,200 paintings and watercolors and roughly 10,000 drawings. Moreau sold about 500 works while alive, and these are in other collections and museums.
From about 1914 until 1960, art historians lost interest in Moreau, viewing him as an eccentric, although he was always considered a great teacher. In 1961, a large retrospective of Moreau was held in Paris at the Louvre, which led to more exhibitions in the 1960s. In 1974, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibition and so did the Zurich Kunsthaus in 1986. In 1998 and 1999, an exhibition of his works appeared in Paris, Chicago, and New York. "Exactly where Moreau fits in, and his real place in art history, is as difficult to determine in 1999, however, as it was in 1899," wrote Laura Morowitz in The Art Bulletin. "Perhaps our only safe judgment is to agree with the critic Theophile Gautier, writing a century and a half ago, that ' … his work stands in singular isolation, and whether it pleases or not, one has to reckon with it."'
Kaplan, Julius, The Art of Gustave Moreau: Theory, Style, and Content, UMI Research Press, 1982.
Kaplan, Julius, Gustave Moreau, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1974.
Mathieu, Pierre-Louis, Gustave Moreau, with a catalogue of the finished paintings, watercolors and drawings, New York Graphic Society, 1976.
The Art Bulletin, June 2000.
Smithsonian, August 1999.