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Artists Gustave Moreau
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Gustave Moreau

French Painter

Movement: Symbolism

Born: April 6, 1826 - Paris, France

Died: April 18, 1898 - Paris, France

Gustave Moreau Timeline


"I have never looked for dream in reality or reality in dream. I have allowed my imagination free play, and I have not been led astray by it."
Gustave Moreau
"I am dominated by one thing, an irresistible, burning attraction towards the abstract."
Gustave Moreau
"The expression of human feelings and the passions of man certainly interest me deeply, but I am less concerned with expressing the motions of the soul and mind than to render visible, so to speak, the inner flashes of intuition which have something divine in their apparent insignificance and reveal magic, even divine horizons, when they are transposed into the marvellous effects of pure plastic art."
Gustave Moreau
"No one could have less faith in the absolute and definitive importance of the work created by man, because I believe that this world is nothing but a dream..."
Gustave Moreau
"I love all ecstasies, all aspirations, all humanity's needs. Everything that makes me believe that man suffers and that in this vague suffering of the soul he seeks to raise himself up, delights and moves me. Religion, poetry, art in all its forms, prayer, meditation, love; all the varied forms of ideal love and the needs of the suffering soul."
Gustave Moreau
"The career of painter is a true Priesthood"
Gustave Moreau

"I believe neither in what I touch nor what I see. I only believe in what I do not see, and solely in what I feel."

Gustave Moreau Signature


Gustave Moreau's visionary paintings speak to an obsession with the otherworldly, the macabre, and the life of the imagination which resonates across the recent centuries, making him one of the most fascinating of 19th-century painters for modern audiences. Guided partly by his unusual religious faith - which has been called Neo-Platonist, stressing the imperfection and impermanence of the physical world -Moreau set about capturing the products of his imagination on canvas with photographic accuracy. He believed that by so doing, he was allowing divine vision to speak through his brush. Moreau's paintings, normally depicting moments from biblical or mythic narratives, are populated with ambiguous visual symbols - which he took to represent certain desires and emotions in abstract forms - with divine and mortal beings locked in conflict, and with strange visions of sex and suffering. His art predicts not only subsequent movements such as Symbolism (of which he was a forerunner) and Surrealism, but also the peculiar concerns of our own era, seen to have given free rein to the darkest and most submerged impulses of the human mind.

Key Ideas

By emphasising the importance of imagination to artistic creation, Moreau set himself against the two dominant currents in French painting when he began working in the 1850s: on the one hand, the Realism of Gustave Courbet, which stressed the depiction of real people and subject matter, and on the other, Naturalism, whose concern with capturing precisely what the eye saw culminated in the formal innovations of Impressionism.
Many of Moreau's paintings show Christian symbols and figures interacting with Classical and other pagan elements. In so doing, they express a synthetic - or syncretic - religious imagination which would be common to much art of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and which also predicts the many cults and new-age religions that follow.
Moreau's paintings frequently depict two figures locking eyes, their faces and gazes mirroring one another. Often, these forms represent divine and earthly passion in conflict, and are presented as male and female respectively. This technique of mirroring two faces has been seen to predict early-20th-century psychoanalysis in stressing the duality of the human mind: the idea that multiple characters and impulses, some visible, some invisible, might inhabit the same body.
Moreau's interest in depicting femme fatale women and physically delicate, androgynous seeming men, was echoed in fin-de-siècle and Decadent aesthetics - we can see Moreau-type figures, for example, in the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley - and in some ways resembles the unpicking of male and female archetypes in our own era.

Most Important Art

Gustave Moreau Famous Art

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864)

This painting, which marks the beginning of Moreau's mature period, offered a daring new interpretation of a famous scene from Greek mythology. The tragic hero Oedipus is accosted en route from Corinth to Thebes - where, having just killed his father Laius, he will marry his mother Jocasta in unwitting fulfilment of divine prophecy - by a fabulous beast with the head and breasts of a woman, the ornate plumage of a bird of prey, the body of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. As the creature claws her way up his nude body, Oedipus and the sphinx hold each other's gaze.

The neo-classical painter Ingres had depicted the same subject in Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx (1808), and Moreau's version pays homage to the older artist while offering several points of formal and thematic departure. In contrast to Ingres's direct treatment of a key scene from the Oedipus narrative - the confident, muscled protagonist leaning forwards to solve the sphinx's riddle, thus saving his own life and liberating the citizens of Thebes from her curse - Moreau offers a density and obscurity of symbolic detail well beyond the inherited tropes of history painting. Through suggestive but ambiguous features such as the fig tree at bottom-left, the butterfly and chalice to Oedipus's right, and the snake twining around the pedestal, Moreau presents a scene which seems to exist outside the naturalistic, time-bound realm of historical and mythic narrative, instead occupying a strange and timeless dream-world.

In composing the piece, Moreau opted for a deliberately archaic effect, emulating early Renaissance painters such as Andrea Mantegna. Both the steep spires of rock in the background, for example, and what the critic Peter Cooke calls the "wiry, linear style" of the composition, suggest Mantegna's influence. Other critics have suggested biographical and sociological influences on the painting. Moreau's father had died a few months before he began the piece, just as Oedipus's father has died, shortly before the scene depicted. The dominant body language of the sphinx, meanwhile - clawing her way up the hero's chest - has been seen to express fears of the growing political and cultural influence of women in mid-19th-century France.

This work marks a new direction both for Moreau and for French painting in general. As well as rejecting the contemporary tropes of Realism and Naturalism, Moreau predicted, and in a sense established, some of the key concepts of Symbolist art, by presenting various seemingly allegorical but stubbornly enigmatic compositional motifs. The realistic representation of dream-like imagery, as well as the subject's later treatment by Sigmund Freud, made this an important work for Surrealist artists such as André Breton.
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Gustave Moreau Artworks in Focus:



Gustave Moreau was born in Paris to a wealthy middle-class family in 1826. His father, an architect, ensured that Moreau received an education in the classics, while his mother, a talented musician, doted on him due to his poor health as a child. She later recalled that he drew incessantly from the age of 8. When he was 13, his sister Camille died, and Moreau was taken out of school because of illness. When he was 15, he visited Italy and quickly developed a keen interest in art, particularly that of Greco-Roman and Byzantine antiquity and the early Italian Renaissance. Later, at around the age of 18, he studied with François-Edouard Pico, the Neoclassical painter, and prepared for the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Early Training and Work

Moreau gained a place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1846, studying there for three years. Twice, in 1848 and 1849, he entered the prestigious Prix de Rome, but failed to win both times. Over the next couple of years, Moreau studied paintings at the Musée du Louvre, and across the early 1850s he completed a few government commissions.

In 1851, Moreau befriended the painter Théodore Chassériau, who had studied under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Moreau was deeply influenced by Chassériau's work - particularly his interest in combining elements of neo-classical and romantic aesthetics - and set up a studio next door to him. This was a key period for Moreau's artistic development, and in 1852 his work was exhibited in the official Salon for the first time. In the same year, his parents bought him a house in Paris, at 14 Rue de La Rochefoucauld (now the Musée National Gustave Moreau). He established a studio on the third floor, which remained his base for most of the rest of his life. In 1856, Moreau's close friend and mentor Théodore Chassériau died at the young age of 37.

Mature Period

Portrait of Gustave Moreau by Edgar Degas (circa 1860)
Portrait of Gustave Moreau by Edgar Degas (circa 1860)

Soon after the death of Chassériau, Moreau returned to Italy, where he travelled extensively, studying the art of the Renaissance and Mannerist masters. In early 1858, Moreau met the young Edgar Degas in Rome, and the two struck up a friendship, later travelling to Siena and Pisa together. Both had a significant influence on the other's work, and each created at least one portrait of the other. Later, their aesthetics developed in very different ways, as evident from a comment of Degas's, reported by the French poet Paul Valéry: "He would have us believe that the Gods wore watch chains." But the two men remained friendly in later life despite their artistic differences.

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Gustave Moreau Biography Continues
Photograph of Alexandrine Dureux (1883)
Photograph of Alexandrine Dureux (1883)

Moreau returned to Paris in 1859, upon which he met Alexandrine Dureux. The pair's relationship is not well-understood, partly because Moreau burned their correspondence upon Dureux's death. However, Moreau described her as his "best and only friend", and introduced her to drawing. Even though they were together for over 20 years, they never married, for unknown reasons; though some critics have suggested that Moreau might have been homosexual.

In 1864, Moreau showed Oedipus and the Sphinx at the Salon. The work brought Moreau to popular and critical attention, and confirmed his position as a serious member of the art establishment, marking the beginning of his mature career. Indeed, is worth noting that Moreau had nothing to do with the symbolic rejection of state-sanctioned taste by the artists who had established the so-called Salon des Refusés the previous year. Oedipus was initially purchased by Prince Napoléon, first cousin of Emperor Napoleon III.

Moreau's <i>Self-portrait</i> (1872)
Moreau's Self-portrait (1872)

In 1869 Moreau exhibited Prometheus and Europe at the annual Salon. Although he won a medal for these paintings, critics reviewed the work harshly, and in response, Moreau retreated to his studio for several years: a period of seclusion which perhaps contributed to a later image of him as a mysterious hermit. During this time, Moreau explored radical new directions for his painting, resulting in a triumphant return to the Salon in 1876 with The Apparition. He received a number of official honors over the following years, becoming an Officier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1883. The following year, Moreau's mother, to whom he was very close, died, plunging the artist into despair.

Late Period

In 1886, the poet Jean Moréas published the Symbolist Manifesto ("Le Symbolisme"). Although the movement was primarily concerned with poetry (naming Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine as the key literary leaders of the movement), the Symbolists adopted Moreau as an artistic figurehead, and Moreau has been associated with literary as well as artistic Symbolism ever since. This is partly because of Joris-Karl Huysmans' influential 1884 novel À Rebours ("Against the Grain"), in which he dedicates a whole chapter to Moreau's art.

<i>The Study of Gustave Moreau</i> (1894-5) by Henri Matisse
The Study of Gustave Moreau (1894-5) by Henri Matisse

In 1888, Moreau was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Two years later Alexandrine died. Deeply saddened, Moreau painted Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice (1891) in her memory. Between 1892 and his death in 1898 he was a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where his students included Henri Matisse, Georges Roualt, Georges Desvallières, René Piot, and other artists associated with the Fauvist movement. The most famous of them, Matisse, noted that Moreau's approach to teaching was revolutionary, as he made his pupils visit Paris's great museums as part of their training. Indeed, although most accounts of Moreau's life describe it as hermit-like, almost devoid of incident, his pupils' recollections paint a picture of an inspiring and genial figure. He also dedicated the final years of his life to planning for his Parisian home to be transformed into a museum, containing both finished and unfinished work as well as the objects and furniture of his everyday life.


Photograph of Gustave Moreau
Photograph of Gustave Moreau

Moreau's influence can be found in the work of an unusually diverse range of artists and writers. Henri Matisse, an artist who revolutionized modern art, claimed that Moreau's teaching was fundamental to his artistic development: "He didn't set his pupils on the right road, he took them off it. He made them uneasy...He didn't show us how to paint; he roused our imagination." Another favored pupil, the painter George Roualt - who, like Matisse, was associated with Fauvism in the early-20th century - spoke of Moreau's great respect for the individual style and vision of each artist he tutored.

The Gustave Moreau Museum remains open to visitors today, and offers a chance to see unfinished works, illustrations, and intriguing experimental sketches and watercolors that verge on abstraction. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, visited the museum as a teenager, and was strongly affected the experience: "My discovery, at the age of sixteen, of the Gustave Moreau museum influenced forever my idea of love... Beauty and love were first revealed to me there through the medium of a few faces, the poses of a few women." Moreau's interest in dreams and his attempts to express an abstract emotional state through form, color and juxtaposition would be a significant influence on Breton and other Surrealists, including Salvador Dalí.

Moreau's influence can also be sensed in literary circles. As well as Joris-Karl Huysmans, responses to Moreau can be found in the work of Cuban-born French poet José-Maria de Heredia, who wrote sonnets inspired by the artist's painting, and in the writings of Marcel Proust, a frequent visitor to Moreau's home.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Gustave Moreau
Interactive chart with Gustave Moreau's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


François-Édouard Pico
Jean-Auguste-Dominique IngresJean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Eugène DelacroixEugène Delacroix
Nicolas PoussinNicolas Poussin


Théodore Chassériau


The Pre-RaphaelitesThe Pre-Raphaelites
Gustave Moreau
Gustave Moreau
Years Worked: 1851 - 1898


Odilon RedonOdilon Redon
Fernand Khnopff
Salvador DalíSalvador Dalí
André BretonAndré Breton


Edgar DegasEdgar Degas
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Georges Roualt
Georges Desvallières
René Piot


Decadent MovementDecadent Movement
Aesthetic ArtAesthetic Art

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
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Useful Resources on Gustave Moreau




The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Gustave Moreau: History, Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism Recomended resource

By Peter Cooke

Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream

By Genevieve Lacambre

Gustave Moreau: The Assembler of Dreams

Paint is the Language of God: The Gospel According to Gustave Moreau Recomended resource

By Tim Keane
March 26, 2016

Stairway to Heaven: Life After Death for the Mysterious Gustave Moreau Recomended resource

By Allison Meier
Atlas Obscura
June 20, 2014

The Story in Paintings: Gustave Moreau and the Dissolution of History

The Eclectic Light Company
February 2, 2016

Dream House

By Adam Leith Gollner
The New York Times
19 March, 2006

More Interesting Articles about Gustave Moreau
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