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Gustave Moreau - Biography and Legacy

French Painter

Movements and Styles: Symbolism, Orientalism

Born: April 6, 1826 - Paris, France

Died: April 18, 1898 - Paris, France

Gustave Moreau Timeline

"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
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Biography of Gustave Moreau


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-Édouard 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.

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.

The Legacy of Gustave Moreau

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.

Most Important Art

Zoom imageGustave 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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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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First published on 10 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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