Rêvons, c’est l’heure.
There is something so personal, nearly intimate about a visit to a museum dedicated to a single artist: Rembrandt or Van Gogh in Amsterdam, Matisse in Nice, Rodin and Monet in Paris, Dali and Picasso almost everywhere. I like the total immersion in the life and times of the artist, getting to know him at work and play. As we focus on the thinking and techniques following a chronological or less logical progression, we achieve deeper understanding of the artist and the man. When the museum is also the artist’s home and the studio he built, the spirit of the painter is all around, almost audible, palpable.
These are the emotions experienced by the visitor to the Gustave Moreau museum in the heart of Paris. It feels like a privilege to immerse oneself in the atmosphere of the artist’s 19th century cloister, the apartment in which he lived his reclusive life, the studio he built and where many of his canvases hang the way he arranged them.
Here are the rooms where Moreau dreamed his characters and the scenery in which he placed them. As we climb up the spiral staircase to his 3rd floor studio, we half expect to be greeted by the sight of the master in front of his easel. The easel is present.
Of Myth and Mystery
I only believe in what I do not see, and solely in what I feel.
In a moment of capricious malice so frequent in the world of the gods, Jupiter’s wife, Juno, advises Semele to ask Jupiter to appear to her in all his splendour. He answers the request, but his divine splendour includes thunder and lightning which cause Semele’s violent death. In Moreau’s painting, over two-metres-high, Jupiter is sitting en majesté on an elaborate throne, red brushstrokes around his head bright as the lightening that hit Semele. Architectural features and vegetation decorate the throne and the ground around it. Naked and pale, bleeding, the victim of this coup de foudre is draped on Jupiter’s thigh; she is still looking adoringly (or horrified) towards Jupiter, whereas he is gazing straight ahead, apparently without seeing. The sky is beginning to lighten in the far background. Vivid colours and dark corners hide as much as reveal a dream-like population of allegorical figures scattered around the canvas. Standing in front of this imposing painting, the viewer can try to take it in as a whole, enjoying the balanced composition, or spend some time decoding the symbols and admiring the fine details.
Not far away, at the Musée d’Orsay, Galatée reclines in her cave, where she is safe from the love-sick cyclop. Pink flowers in her long hair, surrounded by finely detailed aquatic vegetation, Galatée’s expression is serene. Like a marble sculpture, her body directs the eye diagonally, away from the face of the cyclop hidden in the shadows.
There is a lot going on in Moreau’s gigantic paintings. I stopped for a long time in front of Les Pretendants (The Suitors) trying to take in this canvas the size of a room (385cm x 343cms), first as a whole, admiring the clever composition and the complexity of the story it tells. The story is, of course, an excuse for the display of architecture, bodies, characters and symbols. There were 108 suitors (unmarried men courting Penelope) in Odysseus home, behaving badly, eating his food, drinking his wine, courting his wife. Odysseus returns home and, with the help of his son and a couple of friends slaughters them all. There is so much movement and passion in Moreau’s painting, I had to sit down and close my eyes. When I opened them again, I enjoyed the details: the classic columns, the arabesque of the bodies, the touches of scarlet – one can almost hear the cries of the wounded.
A pioneer in the symbolist use of myth, Moreau has embraced the heroic ideals of the 19th century. Like the myth of Hercules – the hero who was invited by Thespius to impregnate his fifty daughters as a reward for killing the lion. Unsurprisingly, the myth is rarely represented in painting, and there is uncertainty over the length of time it took Hercules to complete this reproductive act. Moreau chose to indulge his fantasy by depicting the hero in a meditative pose, surrounded by young women sitting, reclining or standing - and swans.
His most famous painting, The Apparition, is based on an event Moreau illustrated over 150 times - in drawing, watercolours and oil. In a lavish palace, decorated in an eclectic medieval, roman and oriental style, Salome dances for Herod, who promised her the head of John the Baptist. The action takes place in the lower half of the canvas. The naked body of Salome is turned towards the viewer, and she points towards John’s hovering head, which somehow appears to be the centre of the composition. The very bright halo is reflected in Salome’s shimmering veils. In a symbolistic time scale, Moreau has combined several stages of the story in one fantasy tableau. The painting is a fine example of Moreau’s use of classical and modernist values that characterise the Symbolist art.
The Life of a Mystic
Born in Paris to wealthy middle class parents, Moreau benefited from both the money and the artistic environment in which he grew up. He received a good formal classic education, and a visit to Italy as an adolescent contributed no doubt to his lifelong admiration for Renaissance art.
Moreau was decidedly not following trends. Unlike his contemporaries, he didn’t struggle to pay the rent – his parents purchased for him a house in the 9th arrondissement where he lived and installed his third floor studio. At a time when Realism and Impressionism were fighting for predominance on the art scene, Moreau painted large canvases with personages and images encountered in his dreams. His paintings are populated by mythological and biblical figures, in dreamlike landscapes.
The sumptuous canvases appealed to the taste of a particular Parisian elite, who liked his lyrical approach to mythological and biblical subjects and paid good prices for his paintings. Despite regularly exhibiting at the Salon and being elected at the Académie des beaux arts, his work remained relatively unknown to the general public. Moreau was considered a recluse, sole guardian of his art and the legends that inspired it.
Moreau’s interests were varied: he was equally fascinated by Medieval and Renaissance art, attracted by mythologies and Bible stories, dreaming of India and the Far East. His paintings feature Christian and Oriental motifs, Indian landscapes and exotic animals, Medieval and Roman architecture.
A year before his death he bequeathed his home to the French nation, to become a museum - conceived by the artist and curated by him or as per his advice and recommendations.