The finished paintings of Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) before 1864 showed promise, but despite his aim of radically changing history painting, they were hardly revolutionary. Nor did they have much impact in Paris. However, over this early period in his career, he started three much larger paintings which he never completed. This article looks at those, and what we can read in them: The Suitors, The Daughters of Thespius, and Tyrtaeus Singing during the Combat.
The Suitors (c 1852-1885, unfinished)
There is still controversy over when Moreau started work on this large painting, but it was probably around 1852, before he went to Italy. Cooke considers that he did not work on it in earnest until nearer 1860, after he had returned from Italy, and had determined to change history painting. At that stage, it seems to have consisted of a smaller canvas, and he discontinued work on that by about 1864, only to return to it, perhaps intermittently, and then more seriously in the early 1880s, by which time the canvas had been enlarged considerably. He seems to have finally abandoned it in around 1885.
Using drawings made by Moreau in 1860, Cooke argues that the original work was slightly larger than shown in this detail, although even this area changed considerably during Moreau’s later re-working.
The painting shows the scene in Book 22 of Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus returns home to his palace in Ithaca and massacres the many suitors who have occupied it in their efforts to court Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. The overall episode is quite complex in narrative, but Moreau opts for the climax, in which Odysseus is killing the suitors, rather than any of the more involved sub-stories leading up to that.
There are two prominent figures: Odysseus, who was originally holding a bow and standing proud at the top of steps on the right, and Minerva (Pallas Athena) who is in mid-air in the middle of the painting, as Odysseus’ tutelary goddess. By the time that the canvas had been enlarged and repainted, Odysseus was lost in the background (he is now shown, still holding his bow, in the doorway at the back, with an owl over his head), and Minerva has become pre-eminent.
Moreau justified this alteration (his mother was deaf, so he wrote notes to her providing invaluable explanations) by typifying Odysseus as showing ‘material and brutal force’, but Minerva represented ‘wisdom, moral force’. The suitors, now filling the canvas in their suffering and death, were ‘Last Judgement figures fleeing before the divine thunderbolt’ of Minerva (quotations from Cooke, p 46).
Moreau’s most immediate influence was Thomas Couture’s Romans during the Decadence (1847), although clearly there were also paintings or engravings of the Last Judgement in his mind at a later time.
The painting still contains much of interest: the figure at the right, dressed in blue, where Odysseus should have been, was copied in the Uffizi in Florence in 1858; the central figure leaning on his lyre is Phemios, the singer of epic poetry, who was spared at the request of Telemacus, and personifies Greece, fearlessly defying fate; at the far left, two figures remain calm, and are the more beautiful for remaining so (according to Moreau).
Fascinating though these details are, the painting was clearly not achieving the effect that Moreau desired, and after enlargement and repainting has merely become confused, its original protagonist lost in the background, its story a muddle.
The Daughters Of Thespius (c 1853-, unfinished)
Probably started slightly later than The Suitors, and abandoned by 1864, Moreau’s original title uses the name Thestius, which is accepted to be an error for Thespius. He was the legendary founder and king of Thespiae in Boeotia, who with his wife Megamede, and the assistance perhaps of some mistresses, allegedly fathered fifty daughters.
When they reached marriageable age, Thespius offered them as a prize to Heracles for killing a lion. Although there are different accounts, that shown here is that Heracles slept with forty-nine of the daughters in a single night, the fiftieth refusing, and being sent off to serve as a virgin priestess of a temple to Heracles. Pseudo-Apollodorus lists them all, together with the names of the sons that they bore as a consequence.
Moreau sets this very dodgy story in what appears to be a tepidarium, inspired by his friend and mentor Chassériau’s painting The Tepidarium (1853), which was acclaimed when shown at the Salon. Once again, it appears that Moreau’s nearly finished original canvas was enlarged later, and that work on the enlarged area was then abandoned too.
This detail shows most of Moreau’s original canvas, with the naked figure of Heracles in the midst of the fifty naked daughters. Cooke notes the air of tension and anxiety between them – in the circumstances, perhaps not unsurprisingly. Shortly before his death, Moreau wrote of the feelings of Heracles, which he described as ‘attentive and anxious’ amid the ‘superb and terrible herd’.
Probably after the canvas had been extended, Moreau included the cosmic symbols of the sun and moon atop the pillars which frame Heracles. But I think that the artist recognised that this painting was an unfortunate detour along a road which only get more sordid the further that he travelled.
Tyrtaeus Singing During the Combat (1860-, unfinished)
The last of these three paintings to be started, Moreau seems to have worked on this in the early 1860s, abandoned it, then returned to have it enlarged in about 1883, and work it further for a period, before finally giving it up altogether.
This detail shows much of the original painting, which is full to bursting with androgynous and near-naked young men. The priestess-like figure to the left of the centre appears to be Tyrtaeus, an elegiac Greek poet who lived around the time of the Second Messenian War, in the latter part of the seventh century BCE. He had strong military links and following, and his verse exhorted the Spartans to fight bravely against the Messenians. He is shown here in action, inspiring the young Spartan warriors to victory.
The strange collage-like effect is a combination of Moreau’s emphasis on establishing the form of his figures, and I suspect edge-enhancement in the image’s processing.
This painting has elicited speculation as to how much Moreau may have identified with Tyrtaeus (as he seems to with other classical poets, such as Hesiod), and whether the figures should be read as being homoerotic. The latter does not appear to have been proposed with respect to The Suitors; before the depth and duration of Moreau’s relationship with his muse and mistress was appreciated, this may have been more reasonable. Given The Daughters Of Thespius, it all now seems unnecessary.
The Abduction of Deianeira (c 1860)
In illustrating his case about Moreau’s rejection of contemporary approaches to narrative (history, mythology) painting, Cooke uses the example of The Death of Nessus (1870), one of Jules Élie Delaunay’s most brilliant and successful paintings. Cooke argues that it shows the theatricality which Moreau sought to distance himself from. It is a fortuitous choice, as in about 1860, a decade before his friend Delaunay painted that work, Moreau appears to have been working on his own version. You can see Delaunay’s magnificent painting here (which is sadly not available to include here).
This drawing, squared up and ready to transfer to canvas for painting, shows a highly theatrical version of the same motif: in the foreground, Nessus the centaur, who has been abducting Deianeira, the wife of Heracles, has been struck by a poisoned arrow from the bow of Heracles, in the right distance. This is almost the exact instant, and a very similar composition, to that of Delaunay.
In the period between his return from Italy until 1863, Moreau still seems to have been considering just how he was going to change history painting. The evidence, from the finished paintings which I showed in the previous article, and from these unfinished works here, is that he had yet to arrive at his solution.
The next article will examine his paintings from the mid 1860s, which show his divergence.
Cooke P (2014) Gustave Moreau, History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20433 9.
Mathieu P-L (1998, 2010) Gustave Moreau, the Assembler of Dreams, PocheCouleur. ISBN 978 2 867 70194 8.