Not to See but to Feel

Self-Portrait by Gustave Moreau, 1850, oil on canvas. Musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris, France

Artist: Gustave Moreau
Born: 6 April 1826, Paris, France
Movement: Symbolism, Orientalism
Died: 18 April 1898, Paris, France

Gustave Moreau’s was a visionary painter with and obsession with the otherworldly, the macabre and the life of the imagination. Guided by his Neo-Platonist faith that stressed the imperfection and impermanence of the physical world, he set about capturing the concepts of his imagination with pinpoint accuracy. His belief that by doing so he was allowing the voice of divine vision to speak through his brush. His paintings depicting biblical and other mythological narratives, are also populated with ambiguous symbols representing desires and emotions in abstract forms of divine and mortal beings locked in conflict with obscure visions of sex and suffering. Moreau was a forerunner of Symbolism and Surrealism and his works reflect the concerns of being given free rein to the darkest and deepest impulses of human nature.

Jupiter and Semele, 1889-95, oil on canvas. Musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris, France

Moreau’s emphasis on imagination in artistic creation set him against the dominant currents of French painting, that of realism and naturalism of the formal innovations of Impressionism. Moreau’s paintings depicted Christian symbols and figures interacting with Classical and other pagan elements, thus expressing a syncretic religious imagination common to art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Moreau depicted figures locking eyes, with faces and gazes mirroring each other to represent divine and earthly passion in conflict, often presented as male and female respectively. He also painted femme fatale women and delicate, androgynous men.

Born in Paris to a wealthy middle-class family Moreau suffered poor health as a child. When he was 15, he visited Italy and developed a keen interest in art and at 18 he studied with the Neoclassical painter François-Édouard Pico in preparation the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Moreau gained a place at the Ecole in 1846 and studied there for three years before proceeding to study paintings at the Musée du Louvre and during the early 1850s he completed a few government commissions.

Two Modern Horsewomen, 1852, watercolour. Private collection.

Moreau befriended the painter Théodore Chassériau, a student of Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres, in 1851 and was deeply influenced by his work, particularly in combining elements of neo-classical and romantic aesthetics. Moreau set up a studio next door to Chassériau and this time was a key period in Moreau’s artistic development. In 1852 his work was exhibited in the official Salon and in the same year his parents bought him a house in Paris, at 14 rue de La Rochefoucauld, now the Musée National Gustave Moreau. It remained his base for most of his life. In 1856 Chassériau died at the age of 37.

After Chassériau’s death, Moreau travelled extensively in Italy, studying the art of the Renaissance and Mannerist masters. He met Edgar Degas in Rome and the two formed a friendship, travelling together to Siena and Pisa. Each had a considerable influence on the other’s work, and both painted at least one portrait of the other. In later years, their aesthetics developed in diverse and different ways, but the two men remained friends despite their artistic differences.

The Sphinx, 1864, oil on canvas. Private collection

In 1858 Moreau returned to Paris and met Alexandrine Dureux. Their relationship is not clearly understood as Moreau burned their correspondences upon Dureux’s death. They were together for over 20 years but never married. Moreau showed Oedipus and the Sphinx at the 1864 Salon and the work brought him to popular and critical acclaim whilst confirming his position as a serious member of the art establishment.

In the 1869 Salon Moreau exhibited the paintings Prometheus and Europe, both of which won a medal; however the critical review was harsh, and the artist retreated into his studio for several years. During this period of seclusion Moreau explored radical new directions for his painting, returning triumphantly to the Salon in 1876 with the Apparition. In 1884 Moreau’s mother died, plunging the artist into depression.

The Poet and the Saint, 1868, watercolour. Private collection

The poet Jean Moréas published the Symbolist Manifesto in 1886. The movement was primarily concerned with poetry, however the Symbolists adopted Moreau as an artistic figurehead. He was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1888 and two years later Alexandrine died. Moreau, deeply saddened, painted Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice in her memory in 1891. He was a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1892 until his death in 1898, his students included Matisse, Desvallières, Piot and other artists of the Fauvist movement. In the final years of his life he began planning for his Parisian home to be turned into a museum, containing objects and furniture from his life as well as finished and unfinished work. Moreau was buried at the Montmartre Cemetery, Paris, France.

©JG Farmer 2019

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