Gustave Moreau

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

Gustave Moreau

From Iian Neill

Published before 2005

Travis Louie wrote:
I can't say I hate Moreau, but I never found his work interesting enough to give it a second look.

I can see how the majority of Moreau's work might merit this appraisal, but I encourage you to look longer at works like Oedipus and the Sphinx, Salomé Dancing Before Herod, Phaethon, and any number of his watercolours. Moreau was dedicated to the revival of epic painting. He began with scenes from history, then discovered that his genius was better suited to the legendary, the mythic. Not content with painting conventional allegories, he sought passionately (not always wisely) to conjure his legends out of the world of dreams. A true eclectic, he ransacked all history for the pigments of his enammeled palette: towering crags and profound abysses borrowed from Mantegna and Leonardo, long limbed androgynes suggested by his master Chasseriau, incandescent reds and blues caught from Gothic missals. True, his drawings are hard and wiry, even hieratic; I do not think that he was a natural draughtsman in the way of Degas or Millais, but through stern application and study he was able to acquire considerable science of the human form and of landscape. The compositions of his later years are cloistered to the point where the picture seems about to collapse under the sheer weight of ornament.

But there is also that extraordinary Wagnerian sense of colour, strange sickly harmonies, hues brilliantly lurid and fervid approaching at times the intensity and spiritual passion of stained-glass. I remember the first time I saw his work in person. It was the first time I had seen any exhibition of academic paintings - the Orientalist show that passed like a princely caravan down the east coast of Australia in 1998 - and seated enthroned amongst them Gérôme's The Serpent Charmer and Ludwig Deutsche's Nubian Guard. And there was Moreau's Salomé. Those recessed arches of a Byzantine basilica broken by shafts of golden light; glints of porphyry, lapis lazuli, turquoise through the heavily perfumed air. What I remember most is the way he miraculously approached the lapidary's art, his pictures literally 'burning with a hard, gem-like flame'.

-- Iian