Unknown Masters Gustave 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.
by Philip Coppens
Jupiter and Semele Gustave 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. How 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. Louis 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 invitations.
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 true.
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. The Mystic Flower For 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. As 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 brushes. As 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. Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice We 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 painter.