Enchanted and Soaked in Rain in Europe: Gustave Moreau’s Impactful Love Paintings

Symbolists and surrealists regarded him as their precursor. His contemporaries in literature praised his works in novels and poems. After his death, the place where he lived became the first house museum in France. Japanese designer Yoshitaka Amano, who produced illustrations for the video game franchise Final Fantasy, said that in his art, he was inspired by this artist and tried to mimic his style at the beginning of his career. This all is about the French artist Gustave Moreau (1826-1898).

Fig. 1. Self-Portrait, 1850 (wikiart.org)

Obsessed With Painting

The independent character and broad mind of this widely acknowledged painter were shaped by his parents, the architect Louis Jean Marie Moreau and the musician Adèle Pauline Desmoutier. Gustave was a frail child who showed his talents early. At the age of eight, he became obsessed with painting. In 1837, he started attending the Collège Rollin in Paris. After his 13-year-old sister died in 1840, Gustave was withdrawn from the school and, since that time, received home education. Having visited Italy in 1841, a teenage painter brought back a 60-page album full of drawings. This trip strengthened his decision to become a professional artist.

Fig. 2. Sappho On The Rocks (wikiart.org)

Fig. 3. Desdemona (wikiart.org)

Fig. 4. The Birth Of Venus


Fig. 5. Salome Dancing Before Herod (wikiart.org)

Fig. 6. The Chimera, 1867 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 7. Chimera (wikiart.org)

Fig.8. Night (wikiart.org)

Failed But Fine

Moreau started attending a drawing studio and, three years later, the studio of François-Édouard Picot, training students for the entrance examinations at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. In 1846 Moreau enrolled in Picot’s formal class at the École des Beaux-Arts but left it when he failed to win Grand Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for art students. Despite this failure, Moreau continued training on his own, spending hours in the Louvre. This inexhaustibility would result in 15 000 paintings he produced during his lifetime. In 1853, his parents bought him a townhome at 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld, the upper floor of which was turned into Moreau’s studio. Afflicted by the death of his friend Théodore Chassériau, the artist traveled to Italy and got inspiration from the works of Renaissance masters. The influence of Da Vinci can be seen, for example, in Jason and Medea (1865).

Fig. 9. Jason and Medea, 1865 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 10. The Sphinx, 1864 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 11. Oedipus The Wayfarer (wikiart.org)

Elegant Bachelor

Moreau, never married and avoided society, spent a life as a hermit. As Odilon Redon

once said: “Moreau, a bachelor, produced the work of an elegant bachelor, strictly sealed up against the shocks of life; his work is the fruit of it, it is art and nothing but art, and that is a saying a good deal” (wikipedia.org). His clandestine lifestyle later provoked speculations on his sexual orientation. Some biographers suggested him being because of the androgynous figures in his paintings. Nevertheless, his secret relationship with Adelaide-Alexandrine Dureux, which lasted over 30 years, was revealed recently. Alexandrine died eight years before Moreau, which affected the artist greatly. In instructions on his funeral, Moreau mentioned any flowers to be placed on the grave of Alexandrine and not his own. Her tombstone, decorated with their initials A and G, was also designed by Moreau.

Fig. 12. Goddess On The Rocks (wikiart.org)

Fig. 13. Galatea (wikiart.org)

Fig. 14. Galatea (wikiart.org)

Fig. 15. Helene Of Troy, 1897 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 16. Eve, 1885 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 17. Cleopatra (wikiart.org)

Fig. 18. Leda (wikiart.org)

Fig. 19. Perseus and Andromeda, 1869 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 20. Perseus and Andromeda (wikiart.org)

Revolutionary Teacher

Having lost his mother and lover, Moreau became even more unsociable. He stopped exhibiting both in France and abroad. Being elected into the École des Beaux-Arts in 1888, the artist declined professorship and a class. It was only by the desire of his dying friend Élie Delaunay that he agreed to succeed him and direct one of the school’s ateliers. Reluctant, he took this vacancy temporarily but later accepted the appointment of professor and atelier director at the age of sixty-five. As Roger-Marx wrote, “The fires of insurrection have been lit in the very heart of the École des Beaux-Arts: all the rebels against routine, all those who wish to develop in their own individual way, have gathered under the shield of Gustave Moreau” (wikipedia.org). He belonged to a rare kind of teacher who encouraged students to follow their ideas. He would take young artists to the Louvre to show artists they’d never heard of. He also had a valuable ability to recognize a talent turned down by the École des Beaux-Arts, as happened with Matisse. Moreau once saw him drawing and invited the future artist to his class without examination.

Fig. 21. Susanna and the Elders (wikiart.org)

Fig. 22. Samson and Delilah, 1882 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 23. Peacock Complaining to Juno, 1881 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 24. The Abduction Of Europa (wikiart.org)

Fig. 25. The Execution of Messalina, 1874 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 26. The Unicorn (wikiart.org)

Fig. 27. The Unicorns (wikiart.org)

Fig. 28. Song of Songs, 1893 (wikiart.org)

Fig. 29. Venice (wikiart.org)

Roots And Fruits

Examining the works of Moreau, one may notice that his father’s specialization influenced him profoundly, as architectural constructions are recurring motifs of his paintings. Trees and columns, rocks and buildings surround human figures like some kind of a frame. In the most famous work of Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, huge columns encircled by plants allow us to identify the main deity as an architect and the whole world as his opus magnum.

Fig. 30. Jupiter and Semele, 1895 (Wikipedia.org)

Pagan Pieta

The composition of the picture inevitably reminds us of the Pieta, the scene of Mary lamenting the dead body of Christ. According to Moreau, mortal Semele, who asked Jupiter to show his supernatural appearance and died being unable to bear this sight, symbolizes terrestrial love. Her perish is followed by the death of the earth genius, the great Pan depicted in the bottom: “Semele, penetrated by the divine effluence, regenerated and purified by this consecration, dies struck by lightning and with her dies the genius of terrestrial love, the genius with the goat hooves” (wikipedia.org). The small body drowned in a richly decorated setting resembles the open faces and hands of Mary and Christ on the orthodox icons with all rest hidden under riza, a silver cover protecting an icon. Let’s mention that the artist’s natural curiosity for architecture also resulted in his constant interest in the ornaments, which made him close to the representatives of Art Nouveau

. One of the most important books in his vast library was The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones (1856).

Fig. 31. Jupiter and Semele, detail

Fig. 32. Deposition of Christ, Bronzino, 1545 (Wikipedia.org)

Fig. 33. Icon of Our Lady of Kazan (Wikipedia.org)

Europe After The Rain

And the most striking visual resemblance is to Max Ernst

. Entwined stems, leaves, and roots, mysterious trees, and stones look like apocalyptic constructions in the well-known painting of the German artist who used the reproductions of Moreau’s works for collages. This way, the pagan beginning of the world and its’ disastrous end duplicate each other visually.

Fig. 34. Comparison Of Europe After Rain (upper part) to paintings of Moreau.

Fig. 35. Sphinx the Conqueror (wikiart.org)

Fig. 36. Landscape with a View On The Lake and Chimeras (miro.medium.com)


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