“Mr. Gustave Moreau is an extraordinary artist, unique.” wrote the French author Huysmans, “He is a mystic locked up in the middle of Paris in a cell into which even the noise of everyday life that nevertheless beats furiously at the doors of the cloister does not penetrate. Thrown in ecstasy, he sees resplendent fairy-like visions, the apotheoses of other times.”
Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), was an enigma. He was many other things, things known mostly only to himself; a 19th century mystic for one: a man who created hundreds of extraordinary paintings behind the façade of an ordinary looking house in an ordinary Parisian street for another; a progressive and a herald; the painters painter; a man who, sensing death coming wanted to burn his papers, erase himself, leaving only his paintings.
An elusive and secretive loner, Gustave Moreau was possessed of an obsession with the otherworldly, the macabre, and the life of the human imagination which made him uniquely fascinating amongst 19th-century painters. We know little of his life as he burnt most of his papers. Moreau was guided partly by his unusual Neo-Platonist religious faith. Neo-Platonism focusses on the imperfection and impermanence of the physical world. Moreau aimed to reproduce 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; divine and mortal beings locked in conflict; strange visions of sex, death and suffering. His art relates & predicts subsequent movements such as Symbolism and Surrealism and gives free rein to the darkest and most submerged impulses of the human mind.
“I believe neither in what I touch nor in what I see,” he once said, “I believe only what I do not see and solely in what I feel. My brain and my reason seem an ephemeral and doubtful reality to me; my inner feeling along seems eternal, undeniably certain to me”.
The anguished Moreau frequently imbued his works with such themes as exhaustion, disillusionment, and death. Of these, that of death is particularly prominent.
Moreau was born in Paris to a well to do middle-class family in 1826. His father, a Paris city architect, ensured that Moreau received an education in the classics, whilst his mother, a talented musician, doted on him due to his poor health as a child. She later recalled that, from the age of 8, he drew everything he saw, obsessively and incessantly. His sister Camille died when he was 13, and Moreau was removed from school due to illness. At 15, he visited Italy and his already keen interest in art intensified, particularly in the areas of Greco-Roman and Byzantine antiquity and the early Italian Renaissance.
By 18, he was studying with the Neoclassical painter, François-Édouard Picot, preparing for his entrance exams to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. About the time he left art college in 1850 he gives us a self portrait, a haunted, worried vision of himself. At this time he became friends with a fellow artistic child prodigy, the painter Théodore Chassériau.
Chassériau would play a key role in Moreau’s formative years as an artist and then die, six years after the pair met.
Moreau was so enchanted by Chassériau’s work and influence that he set up his studio on the same floor as him. He was especially fascinated by Chassériau’s ability to combine romantic elements with neoclassical aesthetics. Chassériau, who had become a very close friend, died, age 37, in 1856. Moreau worked in this same studio, situated on the Rue de la Rochefoucauld, for the rest of his life.
First, he lost his sister Camille when he was 13, now his much loved friend and mentor Chassériau. Dead. Moreau stopped painting altogether. In 1857, he returned to Italy, and would stay there for two years. He devoted himself almost uniquely to the study of Renaissance masters and once spent 2 whole months in the Sistine Chapel, only leaving for religious ceremonies. In Rome, its known he hung out at the Villa Medicis academy, where he met members of the Academy of France. Here he met the young Degas, who, in search of a mentor, found one in Moreau. In late 1858, Degas wanted Moreau to see the paintings of Botticelli, who at the time was hardly known. He started on a copy of Botticelli’s famous “The Birth of Venus”, but never completed it. Moreau and Degas paid a three day visit to Pisa and Siena with Degas, and returned to Rome at the end of March 1859
After his return to Paris in 1859 he met Adelaide-Alexandrine Dureux (b.1836), his “best and unique friend”. Sometimes labelled his “mistress”, Alexandrine was perhaps more of a muse and soulmate. They never married but their relationship lasted for over 25 years. Before his death Moreau burnt all his correspondence with Alexandrine. It was decades before their relationship was discovered. He often painted her. On 28 March 1890, Alexandrine died. Her death affected Moreau greatly, and his work took on an even more melancholic edge. He buried her with his parents, in the Moreau family cemetery at Monmartre. In October of 1891, Moreau became a professor at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts. He would teach many famous painters, including Matisse.