Gustave Moreau was a symbolist artist whose area of specialization was mythological and biblical themes. He re-invented history painting that first emerged during the Byzantine art and Renaissance. He had an innate talent for bringing magic and fantasy into painting. It would seem that his figures were derived from his imaginative unconscious and interpreted it through symbols.
Aside from being an influential symbolist painter, his out of this world representations also shared resemblance to the oddities of Surrealism, which flourished during the mid-20th century. It could be understood that Moreau provided the preface to Surrealism. By style, he was an embellisher because he had always wanted to adorn his works with textural effects. He utilized thick impasto to be able to create a luxurious and solid feel off of the painting.
It is said that one of his earliest influences was the Romantic artists such as Theodore Chasseriau and Eugene Delacroix. He also found the works of Italian painters and Dutch landscapist Rembrandt interesting, from whom he might have adopted his history painting style and technique. His recurring theme had always been the mystical Salome and Orpheus.
Throughout Moreau’s career, he was productive and prolific, having painted over 8,000 watercolor paintings, drawings and oil paintings. He also did abstract painting without really knowing that it would influence the Abstract expressionism movement. His continuous experimentations with his style provided the foundation for Tachisme and Art Informal, showing how much of an innovator and leader he was.
Some examples of Moreau’s major works include Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), Jason and Medea (1865), Venus Rising from the Sea (1866), Europa and the Bull (1869), La Chimere (1876), and The Toilette (1890).
Gustave Moreau was born on April 18, 1826 in Paris. His natural flair for painting must have come from his talented father, an architect. His father influenced him to pursue the arts but until he was 20 did he receive his first formal art training at the Ecole des Beaux-arts. He took lessons and training classes under Francois-Edouard Picot. The said master had introduced him to Theodore Chasseriau, who also served as his source of inspiration for his painting style.
Under the guidance of Picot and Chasseriau, Moreau learned to absorb their interest in history painting as Picot was a painter of mythological narratives himself. It is worth mentioning that the art instructor was trained by the great Jacques-Louis David who was a stern neoclassicist. No wonder Picot had so much to paint about religious, history and mythology subjects.
During his early 20’s, he admired the works of Delacroix and Chasseriau. They have had inspired him to paint pastiches such as a Pieta, painted in oil on canvas. This art work is now being taken care of by the Cathedral of Angouleme. In 1853 the Parisian Salon accepted one of his works to be exhibited there for the first time and at the Paris Great Exhibition as well.
In 1856, Gustave Moreau crossed the Alps to get to Italy. He has seen and studied the works of the Old Italian Masters, particularly those who flourished during the quattrocento period. He also took interest in the Byzantine mosaic art.
In 1864, he returned to Paris to exhibit his works at the Salon. This was the time he presented his magnificent Oedipus and the Sphinx, which is now located at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. This mythological-themed painting was executed in classical style and finish. He faithfully followed the canons of classical art but added some elements taken from J. D. Ingres’ 1808 version of Oedipus and the Sphinx. According to art critics, the painting also displays the overtures commonly found in the works of Andrea Mantegna.
Although Moreau was already 38 years at the time, his age did not slow him down with discovering himself within his art, style-wise. He would still remain under the shadow and influences of classical painters but continued shaping himself to become an exponent of French Symbolism movement. After his 1864 exhibition at the Salon, he painted Jason (1865) and then followed it up with Orpheus (1866). The latter work was bought by the state, rendering him a public commission.
After exhibiting at the Salon on several occasions within five years, he decided to stop. He took back the salon’s rights to reproduce his works, too. He decided to just live in solitude at Rue de La Rochefoucauld in Paris where his own studio was also located. Since then, his house became his own gallery and is now recognized as a national museum housing over 350 watercolors, 5,000 drawings, and 850 oil paintings.
Moreau shared a romantic relationship with Adelaide Alexandrine Dureux. The woman had also modeled for him in several of his paintings. However, there were no reports or evidence that he married his rumored love interest of 25 years.
In 1891, Moreau was appointed as an art teacher at Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts. There he established a good relationship with future notable painters Jules Flandrin, Henri Matisse, Leon Printemps, Georges Rouault, and Theodor Pallady.
Moreau retreated to his estate right after he decided to stop working for the Salon. The profilic painter died on April 18, 1898 in Paris at the age of 72. He was interred at the Cimetiere de Montmarte, France.
Around 1870’s, Gustave Moreau presumably began painting in watercolor. His first known work was The Apparition. The painting depicts the story of Salome who bewitched Herod. She danced to Herod until he was convinced enough to give her the head of John the Baptiste as her reward. Art historians believe that this theme might be Botticelli’s and Caravaggio’s influence on Moreau, and Salome even became a recurring theme in his works.
In his Salome paintings in watercolor, he presumably wanted to give it to draw an oriental feeling from the audience. This could be the reason why he used a complex combination of grattage, incisions and shading, all of which became a primary characteristic that would describe a Surrealist painting. In fact, Moreau’s Salome had been very influential during his lifetime that Oscar Wilde made a play titled Salome in 1893; however, these two artists probably never had a chance to meet each other.
One evidence that might verify the claim on Oscar Wild’s Salome being based on Moreau’s paintings is the etchings produced by Aubrey Beardsley. The engraver said that “My Herod is like the Herod of Gustave Moreau, wrapped in his jewels and his sorrows. My Salome is a mystic, the sister of Salammbo, a Saint Therese who worships the moon”. It is also said that Wild went to Louvre to observe the Apparition painting closely in 1884.
The idea that Wilde used Moreau’s Salome as an inspiration is never far-fetched for at the time, the painting was very popular, drawing a large number of crowds coming from all over Europe. Moreau represented a classic femme fatale image of Salome albeit subconsciously, letting his Symbolist ideas take over the reality. And what Wilde did was to put these ideas into words; thus, the conception of the play.
Overall, the series of Salome paintings, which consisted of 19 paintings, 150 drawings and 6 watercolors, was Moreau’s most significant work.
During the 19th century French art, only a few artists had focused on classicism and neo-classicism and used it as an inspiration. Most artists dedicated their talent on naturalistic and realistic landscape and portrait paintings so seeking an archaic painting style made Moreau a highly distinguished artist. By style, Moreau was totally unique in his style that even formidable Impressionist painters like Manet couldn’t compare.
Apparently, Moreau’s art was rooted in classical world, which could be taken as his reaction to the quickly growing modern world. His history paintings might represent his own ideological issues, creating his own utopia of mystical characters. It doesn’t help that he used thick impasto in his effort to evoke rich and vivid coloring, which according to him, was a primary requirement to art.
While his contemporaries preferred Impressionism, Gustave Moreau stuck to the supernatural, emotive and dramatic compositions. This led to the development of what would be called the Symbolist movement during the late 19th century.
Primarily because of the mystical, sensuous and hyper-realistic themes of Symbolism, the movement was thought to be the continuation of Romanticism. The painters of this new movement found inspiration from mythological, biblical and historic narratives painted into a dreamy, magical imagery. Thus, they have believed to be painting centered on the sublime, trying to convey a message that was supposed to be private and esoteric. With that, Symbolism shared some resemblance with the style of Art Nouveau and Les Nabis movements.
As for Moreau’s career as a symbolist, the then-critics gave him little credit or worse did not even recognize him as a major inspiration for the surrealists. The frequent visits of Andre Baton, one of the leaders of the movement, to Moreau’s home-converted-to-a-museum in Paris were not enough for them to give where the credit is due. Nevertheless, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts employed him as an art professor in 1891 and left a timeless worth of influence on the younger artists as well as on the artists of today though indirectly.