Gustave Moreau

Between Epic and Dream

Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris

September 29, 1998 to January 4, 1999

The Art Institute of Chicago

February 13, 1999 to April 25, 1999

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

June 1, 1999 to August 22, 1999

Catalogue by Geneviève Lacambre, senior curator at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and director of the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris, with contributions by Larry J. Feinberg, Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Curator in the Department of European Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, Marie-Laure de Contenson, curator at the Musée Gustave Moreau, and Douglas W. Druick, Searle Curator of European Painting and Prince Trust Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, published by La Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Art Institute of Chicago in association with the Princeton University Press, pp. 308, $29.95 (soft-cover).

"Borne towards other worlds than ours"

-Gustave Moreau, commenting on Michelangelo's figures in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican

Phaeton (design for a Ceiling), 1878-9

Phaeton (Design for a Ceiling), watercolor, over graphite, on paper,

99 x 65 cm, 1878-9, Musée du Louvre

by Carter B. Horsley

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) was a great Symbolist painter of exotic worlds and people who was the teacher of Henri Matisse and Georges Roualt and would be greatly admired decades after his death by the Surrealists.

His jewel-like works recall the glories of Medieval illuminated manuscripts and while his themes are often rather bombastic his oeuvre is consistently full of awesome mystery, pageantry and fabulous technique. Unlike the Orientalists who would follow in his wake, his style was not super realistic, but unlike many Impressionists who were his contemporaries it was not particularly luminous.

"If one seems in his works the heritage of Romanticism, one must also recall that the artist was the contemporary of Realist painters Gustave Courbet and Édward Manet, and that he lived in Paris during the time of the Impressionist revolution. Unconcerned with glory, in self-imposed isolation, Moreau seems to have constructed a refined universe, based solely upon his reading and reveries. 'All that I have sought,' he wrote, 'I have found, in small proportions no doubt, but in forms perfectly pure and flawless, for I have never looked for dream in reality or for reality in dream. I have allowed my imagination free play, and I have not been led astray by it,'" note Francoise Cachin, director of the Musées de France and president of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and James N. Wood, director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago in their preface to the catalogue.

The directors also describe Moreau as the "involuntary" initiator of Fauvism, adding that "he executed for himself, in the seclusion of his atelier, some quasi-abstract sketches that are still surprising today."

This exhibition is the first to be devoted to Moreau in the United States since 1964 and the first to be mounted in Paris since 1961. It is mostly from the stupendous collection that the artist himself created as his own monument, his museum at 14, rue de La Rochefoucauld in Paris, which has more than 14,000 works he bequeathed to France.

Described by his friend Edgar Degas as "a hermit who knows what time the trains leave," Moreau "interpreted the art of the past in innovative ways and cleared the way for art of the future, Symbolism in particular, but also Surrealism," writes Geneviève Lacambre in her catalogue introduction, adding that "we must recall that he was always motivated by a larger conceptual intention: to use color and drawing, composition and gesture - as he put it, 'pure plasticity and the arabesque' - in the service of dreams of the ideal."

Lacambre quotes one especially revealing passage from one of Moreau's manuscripts:

"One thing is uppermost for me, an impulse and ardor of the strongest kind toward abstraction. The expression of human feelings, of the passions of man, interests me very much indeed, but I am less inclined to express these movements of the soul and spirit than to render visible, so to speak, the flashes of imagination that one doesn't know how to situate, that something divine in their seeming insignificance and that, translated by the marvelous effects of pure plasticity, open magical horizons that I would even call sublime."

A great admirer of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Moreau was fascinated with what he called "belle inertie," or "beautiful inertia," the "self-absorbed reverie" in which many of their subjects appear to be rapt in sleep and borne toward other worlds than ours." In his catalogue essay on Moreau and the Italian Renaissance, Larry J. Feinberg maintained that the artist "demonstrated to his students Henri Matisse, Georges Roualt, and other major figures of the twentieth century that those artists who possess the proper sensibilities to explore the more subtle aspects of older works will always be able to discover in them something new and germane to contemporary visual culture."

Such an observation unfortunately is rarely heeded, but exceeding accurate: intense study and reflection on the methods, subjects, techniques and drama of the great masters is a very important step in the acquiring of a connoisseur's eye, a connoisseur's taste, a connoisseur's rapture.

In her catalogue essay on the artist and exoticism, Geneviève Lacambre noted that Moreau, although he never traveled outside Europe, ransacked his extensive library for decorative motifs and "privileged oriental examples - Persian, Indian and Egyptian - along with medieval ones, while completely ignoring everything remotely related to the rococo, despite the fact that the arts of this period were enjoying a vogue during the Second Empire."

The Peri (The Sacred Elephant; The Sacred Lake)

The Peri (The Saced Elephant; The Sacred Lake), 1881-2, watercolor on paper,

57 x 43.5 cm, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

The oriental influence can be seen in "The Peri (The Sacred Elephant; The Sacred Lake)," a watercolor in the collection of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, shown above and exhibited only in Chicago and Paris.

Moreau sought to induce "le rêve fixée," (the fixed dream). In his catalogue essay on the artist and Symbolism, Douglas W. Druick noted that Moreau "consciously wanted to provoke a kind of awakening from 'the sleepwalking of life' to a contemplation of higher, more spiritual realities through the creation of visual situations that are more evocative than descriptive, imbued with 'an indecisive and mysterious character.' He sought to realize this 'imaginative ideal' by generating a particular kind of tension, which he described as a 'contrast, at once penetrating and tenacious, between the call of the ideal and the divine and the physical nature that resists [it].' His strategy - to construct expressive dislocations - was one that [Odile] Redon[1840-1916] would later adopt. But their means of doing so differed considerably…Moreau's ambition to defamiliarize the familiar through 'the collision of two worlds - action and idea.' The expressive aim of this endeavor, as Redon correctly intuited, was to address contemporary issues using a renewed visual vocabulary sufficient to the task of forging 'the symbol of [ongoing] events and aspirations, as well as the cataclysms of the day.'…In Moreau's paintings, as in his writings, woman represents the forces of destruction and chaos. She is the 'unconscious,' lacking thought and an 'inner sensibility'; an 'animal nature,' at once 'vegetal and bestial,' driven by 'unsatisfied desire' for the fulfillment of which she is ready to '[trample] everything underfoot.'"

Moreau often worked on several paintings at the same time and many would take years, even decades for him to finish. He began a painting of "Hesiod and the Muses" in 1860, for example, and "finished" it in 1868, only to revisit it after 1883 and significantly enlarge it. The enlargement permitted him to make the background trees much taller and the work is one of the most pleasing early works.

Perhaps his first major work to achieve fame was "Oedipus and the Sphinx," a large 1864, canvas in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although it was caricatured by Honoré Daumier, most critics, the catalogue noted, "greeted it as a revelation" and Odile Redon would later write that when he saw it, "naturalism was at its height, and how the work soothed me! I long retained the memory of this first impression, it perhaps had sufficient power over me to give the strength to pursue an isolated path, which perhaps skirted [Moreau's] own, because of the suggestive part, dear to men of letters."

Moreau kept a press clipping from Castagnary, a critic, that said that "Everyone in the art world is talking about a history painting said to be a landmark event of the century, [a work] that supposedly will rally the faltering classical school, console M. Ingres for his declining health, and bring terror to the heart of naturalism." Moreau, the catalogue added, however, did not retain "the brusque dismissal written by Castagnary after he had seen the painting" in which he described it as "retrograde."

Despite its fame, the painting is too formal and is one of Moreau's weaker major paintings.

Far more interesting is the quite somber and mysterious "Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds," a large painting in the Rust Collection that was completed in 1865. "According to legend, in a densely wooded marsh bordering Lake Stymphalus, in Arcadia, a flock of man-eating birds had multipied to an alarming extent, and the local harvest was being destroyed by their poisonous excrement. Hercules flushed them out of making a din with brazen castanets and then killed them with his arrows," the catalogue wrote, adding that "the rocky landscape, featuring high cliffs rising abruptly from the lake, was inspired by the backgrounds in the works of Leonardo da Vinci" and that "a larger painting of the same subject…is in the Musée Gustave Moreau" and is "more colorful and animated, it depicts Hercules at the entrance to a grotto, surrounded by larger, more menacing birds."

What is extraordinary about the painting is the treatment of the cliffs and rocks and the overall dark tone. They are abstracted and almost reminiscent of early Chinese paintings of mountains. Moreau was quite free in his method of employing a "depth-of-field" technique in which some areas of a painting might seem out of focus to better concentrate attention on the main figure.

Another example of his quite daring blurring is "The Angels of Sodom," painted between 1872 and 1875, where the "wingless, androgynous angels raise their swords of justice above the damned city," the catalogue notes, "a tiny dome, tower, and terraces can just be discerned, shadowed by ominous cliffs in a quasi-abstract landscape."

Probably the most famous of these "quasi-abstract" works is "Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra," a large oil painted between 1869 and 1876 and now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. This dramatic work has a quite terrifying seven-headed snake, the Hydra, "There is perhaps no precedent in the history of art for the obsessive attention and labor that he devoted to the realization" of Hercules in this painting, according to the catalogue entry, noting that Moreau did hundreds of studies of this figure.

Tomyris and Cyrus

Tomyris and Cyrus, 1873-80, oil on canvas, 57.5 by 87 cm, Musée Gustave Moreau

The greatest of these abstractions, however, is "Tomyris and Cyrus," a large oil painted between 1873 and 1880 and shown above and exhibited only in Paris. "This canvas, which Moreau hung in the first-floor gallery of his enlarged house in 1896, is the last item mentioned in the list of paintings in his atelier made on June 4, 1885….we cannot…be sure that Moreau did not work on it after 1885. The fact that it is signed indicates that he was satisfied with it in its present state, as an evocation of a vast and astonishing landscape the forms of which are difficult to decipher. Mountains and a kind of gorge in the center are readily discernible, but the whites and ochres of the sky and the central zone make one think of strange snowy weather, perhaps of a 'northern landscape' such as Moreau envisioned for a never-realized depiction of Marcus Aurelius writing his Meditations in Hungary." This is a stupendous landscape painting that Turner would have admired. It is exceeding painterly and evocative and daunting. Although Moreau is mostly admired for his luxuriant palette, these paintings demonstrate that he also knew the dark side of nature.

The most astounding painting in the exhibition is "Sketch of an Interior," a large work by 1875-8. "Moreau seems to have begun working as a 'pure painter' as early as the mid-1870's, producing compositions that consist solely of carefully placed areas of color. Some of these complement separate studies of figures and ornament. He thought highly enough of many of these nearly abstract oil sketches to have them framed for display in his future museum; some retain the labels of the estate inventory. In 1906, Robert de Montesquiou remarked on these 'panels devoid of meaning for the public,' noting that Henri Rupp had faithfully decided to present them so as 'to inform artists and other visitors about the audacities of his master, about his claim to an equal footing with colorists regarded as outrageous, whom he perhaps even surpassed in their reputed excesses, and, finally, to provide information about his working methods.' Some of these sketches, Montesquiou continued, 'consist solely of flows of color.'

This work predates by scores of years all of the Abstract Expressionists and if not just a preparatory background for an unfinished work is extraordinary. The fact that Moreau had them framed is pretty convincing that he saw the aesthetic merits of such boldness even if it had not been intended. While this does not invalidate the merits of the New York School, it certainly requires a more careful reading of art history!

Perhaps the single most desirable Moreau is "Phaeton (Design for a Ceiling)," a very large 1878-9 watercolor in the collection of the Louvre in Paris that was shown only in Chicago. Here his color, his composition, his imagination, and his technique are in full glory. It is illustrated at the top of this article.

"On the ceiling of the Galerie d'Apollon, in the Musée du Louvre, Delacroix had represented Apollo Slaying the Serpent Python, a composition that, having been commissioned by the government of the Second Republic, was understood by some to represent the Republican victory over the obscurantism of the past. Moreau introduced here the hydra - or, according to Roberta J. M. Olson, the constellation of the Hydra - in place of the serpent Python. This is an immense and triumphant image of chaos, suggesting that Moreau's intentions were antithetical to Delacroix's, that he here set out to express his pessimism and disapproval of contemporary French society, which he regarded as decadent, materialist, and putrescent."

Some works, such as "Saint Sebastian and the Holy Woman," painted in 1968-9, are wonderfully lyrical and exquisite and without the pomposity of some of the larger historical works.

Moreau's watercolors are fabulously rich. "Sappho," a 1871-2 watercolor in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is sublime. The catalogue notes that "her dress and posture were clearly adapted from a brightly colored ukiyo-e print by Kunisada."

Another superlative watercolor is "Dead Poet Borne by a Centaur," shown below.

Dead Poet Borne by a Centaur

Dead Poet Borne by a Centaur, circa 1890, watercolor, 33.5 by 24.5 cm,

Musée Gustave Moreau

Another startling work is "Delilah with an Ibis," a small watercolor from the Moreau Museum that is intensely saturated with blues and greens to highlight the white flesh of Delilah and the red feathers of the bird.

The watercolors, in fact, demonstrate an astonishing array of different techniques and style. A version of "Autumn," for example has a drawing over which watercolor was hastily applied in an extremely vigorous style. "Return from the Hunt" is a stunning work highlighted with gouache with a very abstract background landscape, and "The Oak and the Red" is a fantastically free and immensely energetic work that is better than most Jackson Pollocks.

Nothing, however, prepares one for the shock of a very large "Nude Study" watercolor of 1896 in which a female's white body and long blond tresses stand in front of a dark vertical bands, presumably tree trunks. Here Moreau has somehow managed to make watercolor appear amost as dark, rough stone and the brushwork is enviably wild. In these little known works, Moreau clearly was experimenting and was decades ahead of his contemporaries.

Not all works in the catalogue were shown at each venue, unfortunately. One jewel that was shown only in Paris was "The Death of Sappho," a small oil on panel from the Musée des beaux-arts in Saint-Lô.

Some of Moreau's paintings were unfinished and have traces of figures or elements only outlined. One such is "Salome Dancing Before Herod," which was also shown only in Paris. "This painting, probably begun around 1874, was left in an unfinished state that appeals to contemporary sensibilities….the elements outlined in black and white that the artist added to the background and to the nude body of Salome - the 'tattoo' patterns - reflect the still more exotic influence of Egyptian, medieval, and oriental art."

Not shown in Chicago but in both Paris and New York are a pair of paintings, of unequal size, of a man on horseback. In the larger of the works, the faint white outlines of dogs are in the foreground and provide a ghostliness to the painting that is very intriguing.

"The Prodigal Son"

Moreau is full of surprises. One of the most impressive paintings is "The Prodigal Son," a large, horizontal oil, shown above, that is atypical of most of his work in his composition and palette. Here he has combined the pale palette of a Puvis de Chavannes to a broad Italianate landscape. A figure at the right is finely drawn and balances a bold but well defined figure on a horse in black leading many others who are very sketchily painted. In the background the trees are mostly white as is the sky, but there are sufficient areas of blue and green to ground the work. It is eerie, intriguing, and interesting.

Moreau, then, is a spectacularly fine artist, capable of gem-like masterpieces, wildly inventive styles, rich and imaginative compositions and a vision looking for abstracted truth in the visual world.

In his review of the exhibition in The New York Observer, ( critic Hilton Kramer described Moreau's art as "excessively elaborate, precious, morbid and ornamental" and queried "Could this lugubrious artificer, who seemed to bring to the art of painting the sensibility of a second-rate jewelry designer, really have been an important influence on Matisse?"

"Anything suggestive of assertive manliness was programmatically rejected in favor of a mise en scène at once so bloodless and so fussy, so bereft of vitality and so concentrated on the accretion of miniscule detail and melodramatic effects, that it openly declares its indifference to the normal ranges of emotion to be expected in an art so ambitiously conceived," Kramer continued.

One wonders whether Kramer spent much time looking at some of the above-mentioned works for clearly while Moreau had pyrotechnical details, he also had a remarkable vision that intensified focus by utilizing abstract elements, way, way ahead of others. His paintings are not melodramatic, but dramatic and their drama forces the viewer to apply his emotions to their "ambitious" puzzles.

Kramer does, however, correctly point out that the "disjunction we observe between the vitality of the artist's drawings and watercolor studies and the laborious, bejeweled sterility of the major paintings…is almost poignant at times, but more often simply maddening."

"Degas' wicked judgment of Moreau - that 'He would have us believe that the gods wear watch chains' - sums up everything that was foolish and self-deceived in his most ambitious paintings," Kramer continued.

Bons mots are always appreciated, but in truth Moreau was not a trifling footnote in art history, but a triumphant clarion call. Kramer suggests that the show might be of interest to "connoisseurs of artistic failure." Moreau did not stop the world and turn it around, but who has and is such a standard meaningful?

Is an artist whose fame sweeps the world, especially one nurtured on hype, better than one whose art is beautiful, interesting and provocative?

Kramer concedes that Moreau had talent and unfortunately in the contemporary world that is usually not enough.

The sponsoring museums are to be applauded for recognizing that talent is what really counts and that Moreau had it in abundance, even if he was human and did not produce only masterpieces.

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