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).
-Gustave Moreau, commenting on Michelangelo's
figures in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican
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
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.'
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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, (http://observer.com/cgi-win/homepage.exe?nyo1/hk060799)
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,"
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
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