Moreau: re-imagining history
The 19th century
painter Gustave Moreau created a truly unique style for depicting
his historical and mythological themes. Living secretively, one
has to ask the question whether he was part of a secret lineage
of true masters.
Moreau was both secretive and a master. When French author Huysmans
reported on his visit to the painter, he wrote: “Mr. Gustave
Moreau is an extraordinary artist, unique. He is a mystic locked
up in the middle of Paris in a cell into which even the noise
of everyday life that nevertheless beats furiously at the doors
of the cloister does not penetrate. Thrown in ecstasy, he sees
the resplendent fairy-like visions, the apotheoses of other times.”
In short, he was not your everyday person.
Around the same time, Moreau received novelist and mystic Joséphin
Péladan, who revered him as the greatest living French
painter. However, Moreau refused to show him the paintings he
was working on; only those paintings already hanging on his walls,
he could see. Moreau said that 200 paintings were in progress
and that he daily added details to some, as and when he needed
to. Only when a painting was complete, was Moreau willing to reveal
it, though – preferably – he wanted to see his entire
oeuvre to be unveiled all at once, upon his death.
Péladan wrote later that he learned one thing from this
meeting: “I want, he told me, to accumulate the evocating
ideas in my works in a manner that the owner of a unique work
can rediscover a renewed fomentation.” Moreau also said
that he wanted to make iconostases, which is a wall decorated
with icons that separates the parts of Eastern Orthodox churches.
However, the only painting that comes close to this is “The
Life of Mankind”, done in 1879, in which nine paintings
depict the three Ages, using themes from Genesis, the Greek myth
of Orpheus and Christ. But rather than interpret Moreau literally
on this specific remark, perhaps he wanted to argue that his paintings
were infused with mystical meaning; that one should stand in front
of them and that once one was infused by them, a person was ready
to enter in contact with the divine.
did Moreau become this person? It is hard to say. Moreau was secretive.
He resisted as much as he possibly could exhibiting his works
in public throughout his lifetime. He created an incredible 450
paintings, most of whom were never meant to be sold – or
seen. When he sensed his death approaching, he stated that he
wanted some of his papers burnt. He also destroyed several of
his designs, as he felt that people should only see the finished
perfection of his work, not his futile attempts. He, in short,
wanted that only the art survived the painter, and that the painter
would be singularly identified as such.
Born in 1826, from the age of eight, Moreau drew everything he
saw, and his father Louis actively encouraged him. It was in fact
his father who must have identified that his son was a true master
– on par with the Botticellis and other Renaissance masters
which were lovingly nurtured by the wealthy Florentine families
during the 15th century.
In fact, his father seemed to have been well aware of how painting
during the Florentine Renaissance was seen as a calling, on par
if not equal to a religious calling. He argued that the arts were
required for bettering society and proposed to create an institute
to allow future artists a superior education, which would not
only teach them to draw and paint, but also give them courses
in letters, philosophy, poetry, history, so that the imagination
of the artists could develop itself aesthetically. In short, Louis
Moreau was calling for the creation of a modern equivalent of
the Florentine Academy. In the end, however, the only true pupil
that he managed to educate as such was his own son. However, Gustave
Moreau – like most Renaissance artists as well – is
testament to the validity of his father’s argument.
made sure that Gustave could go to Italy, to be up close and personal
with that great Renaissance art. The first visit to Italy was
in 1841 and it prepared him so that by 1848, he was ready to begin
to expose his work and enter it into competitions. His first entry
into the Salon was in 1852, with a commission he had received
from the state – potentially with the “assistance”
of his father. At this moment in time, the young Moreau knew that
some of his work had to be exhibited, so that he could create
art that would generate an income and which could fuel his “private
projects”, which were only to be unveiled upon his death.
As his reputation grew, he would only exhibit when he truly needed
to, and he is remembered as someone who often refused very prestigious
In 1857, he returned to Italy, and would stay there for two years.
He devoted himself almost uniquely to the study of the masters
of the Renaissance and was able to spend no less than two months
in the Sistine Chapel, only required to leave for the occasional
religious ceremony. Since childhood, he had been obsessed with
Michelangelo and these two months must have been a dream come
In Rome, he also spent considerable time at the Villa Medicis,
where he met members of the Academy of France. It is here that
he met Degas, who was in search of a mentor and found one in Moreau.
In late 1858, Degas wanted Moreau to see the paintings of Botticelli,
who at the time was hardly better known that Carpaccio. Moreau
started on a copy of Botticelli’s famous “The Birth
of Venus”, but never completed it.
Degas and Moreau also shared a common mission: both wanted to
remake the manner in which historical paintings were made. Indeed,
Moreau would go down into history as the man who transformed this
radically, but in such a manner that no-one has ever copied him
– though he did inspire many to develop their own style.
a very long time, it was assumed that Moreau remained single throughout
his life, devotedly living with his mother until her death in
1884. However, it is now known that in 1859, he met Alexandrine
Dureux, his “best and unique friend”. Sometimes labelled
his “mistress”, it seems she was more like his muse,
if not soulmate. They were united for 27 years, but never married,
for unknown reasons. All of his correspondence with Alexandrine
was burnt by the painter himself, which is why it took decades
before their relationship was discovered.
Alexandrine worked as a teacher and died in 1890, at the young
age of 51. He always thought he would die first. Moreau died in
1898 from stomach cancer, though he and others thought he would
die from some of the other illnesses he suffered from; he always
had had a weak constitution.
Shortly after his mother had died, Alexandrine took ill herself
and she became worse in 1889. When she died the following year,
he constructed a monument in the cemetery of Montmartre, near
to where he knew he would be buried later. He also painted “Orpheus
on the tomb of Eurydice”, a very mythical theme about soulmates,
thus underlining how he saw the bond that he and Alexandrine shared.
such, Moreau is known as a loner and known for his very individual
style. Early on in his career, experts noted that he was strongly
influenced by Eugène Delacroix, even though he officially
was a pupil of François-Édouard Picot. In 1856,
Moreau met Delacroix at his home, not far from where his own parents
lived. Unfortunately, Delacroix was unable to take him on as a
pupil, but there is a reference to the visit itself, with Delacroix
noting that Moreau “pleased him greatly.” Delacroix’s
work, specifically in the Chapel of the Angels in St Sulpice in
Paris, is seen as being linked with a secret society known as
the Angelic Society. These artists were believed to somehow have
visions of angels, who somehow helped them in their artistic creations.
Such possibilities are extremely hard to prove, especially in
a man who tried to burn most of his writings, but it is a matter
of record that Huysmans reflected on his visit to Moreau that
the artist had “resplendent fairy-like visions”, which
underlines that Moreau’s art was inspired by “the
beyond”: otherworldly entities seemed to work through his
mentioned, Moreau wanted to remake historical paintings: recreate
the art of the Renaissance, in a new style, specifically adapted
to the 19th century mindset. Hence, we find that Moreau uses all
the same classical themes. Indeed, from a young age, he was heavily
inspired by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, and of course
the masters of the Renaissance themselves. Like the Renaissance,
his main focus was on the illustration of biblical and mythological
figures. Like the masters of Florence, he seems to have had a
specific interest in Mary Magdalene, whom he depicts in often
bizarre paintings of the crucifixion – bizarre because they
are so stark compared to all of his other work. He also had a
specific fascination for Apollo, the Muses and Helen of Troy,
as well as Leda, swans and unicorns… and the biblical figure
of Salome, for whom he has become most famous.
When one looks at a “typical” Moreau painting, one
can see several layers. First is the theme, on par with the masters
of the Renaissance. They are then portrayed in Moreau’s
typical style. On top of many of these paintings is a layer of
black henna-like painting, which is often invisible from a distance,
but dominates the paintings when up close to them. How he managed
to have the two layers interact and complement is one of Moreau’s
greater artistic achievements – and one seldom discussed.
When you study this interaction of the two layers, you often come
to the conclusion that this shouldn’t artistically be possible
to work, but somehow it does.
The final result is a painting that speaks to the very heart of
the observer; in fact, a Moreau painting can be so rich that it
should actually overload the visual senses. His famous “Jupiter
and Semele” is described as how the central figures are
“nearly lost in the abundant and excessive details. Each
square inch of the canvas is filled with minutiae that compete
for the viewer’s attention. Aside from the clearly larger
figure of Jupiter, it is difficult to know where to begin to read
this image or how to interpret the plethora of information that
the painting offers.” Anyone confronted with some of Moreau’s
painting is therefore visually bathed by the image in front of
him; it is likely why Moreau felt that his paintings were iconostases:
art that would move the observer in a different state of mind.
at the Tomb of Eurydice
know little of Moreau’s life, as he was secretive and burnt
the little information that could have been available. But it
is clear that if he was not a “secret master” as such,
from a very young age, it was his father who realised the true
essence of his son, and made sure that his son would be raised
as a true master.
As secretive as he was in life, after the death of Alexandrine
and he himself assuming his own end was approaching, he began
to open his art and heart more and more to the world. He began
to make alterations to his house, in the hope that after his death,
it would be made into a museum that would display the very works
he had so preciously shielded from the world in life – a
dream that was fortunately fulfilled and remains very much alive.
In 1891, he also became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts
in Paris, so that upcoming talent could learn from him. Amongst
his students would be Henri Matisse, who together with Picasso
is sometimes considered to be the greatest artist of the 20th
century. But he would specifically have an influence on André
Breton, the founder of Surrealism, who famously used to “haunt”
the museum and regarded Moreau as a precursor to Surrealism.
Moreau always felt that the art should speak for the artist. Alas,
because of his so secretive nature, Moreau actually was his own
nemesis in this endeavour – both in life and after his death.
Today, his museum in Paris and the various paintings in collections
around the world are often too little appreciated – so is
Moreau. But no-one will deny that he was a veritable master, and
a 19th century mystic, who created hundreds of paintings behind
the façade of an ordinary looking house in a most ordinary
Parisian street. There was, however, nothing ordinary about the