Hesiod’s Brush, the paintings of Gustave Moreau: 6 Back in favour

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Hercules and the Lernean Hydra (1876), oil on canvas, 175 × 153 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Once Gustave Moreau had recovered from the traumas of the Franco-Prussian War, he completed some unfinished paintings, and got started on his next major works. He had been invited to join the select group of artists who were engaged to paint murals in major public buildings, but declined. Despite that, in 1875 he was made a member of the Legion of Honour, which pleased him and his mother deeply. All he needed now was another successful Salon.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Sappho (1871-72), watercolour on paper, 18.4 x 12.4 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum (Given by Canon Gray in memory of André S. Raffalovich), London. Image courtesy of and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sappho (1871-72) was Moreau’s second painting to consider the Greek poet’s suicide, this time in a richly-detailed watercolour. Whereas his previous oil painting had shown her inert body at the foot of the Leucadian cliffs, here she is swooning over her lover shortly before she flung herself to her doom. It is one of his earliest watercolours to manifest his mature style, and one of only two of Moreau’s works to be in major British public collections.

Sappho has her lyre slung over her shoulder, and to emphasise her status as a great poet, Apollo’s gryphon is shown on a column behind her. Her elaborately-decorated clothing and pose were taken from a Japanese woodcut, Genji taking the air in summer on the Sumida by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), which Moreau had bought in Paris.

As he was not exhibiting in the Salon at this time, this was shown in the exhibition of the Cercle des Arts. It was bought later in 1872 by the society hostess Marie Raffalovich, the first of several of Moreau’s works which she was to purchase.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Autumn (Deianeira) (1872), oil on panel, dimensions not known, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps in deference to his late friend Chassériau’s Salon success with a conventional version of the story of Nessus and Deianeira, Moreau did not develop his earlier drawing of that scene.

Instead he incorporated the myth into what he intended to be the first of a series of four paintings of the seasons: Autumn (Deianeira) (1872) is very different. I have discussed this in the context of paintings showing that myth in this article. Moreau leaves the viewer wondering whether this was an abduction or a seduction, and its allegorical role as autumn.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Leda (1865-75), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Leda (1865-75) was an oil painting which he had started almost ten years earlier, showing the famous myth of Zeus as a swan seducing the beautiful Leda, and was finally abandoned, incomplete, in 1875.

The original myth, in which Zeus assumes the form of a swan so that he can impregnate Leda, is strange enough. It is further complicated by the details that, on the same day, Leda was impregnated by her husband, King Tyndareus, so conceiving Helen and Polydeuces (Pollux) by Zeus, and Castor and Clytemnestra by the human king. Because Zeus had the form of a swan, Leda did not give birth in the normal human way, but laid two eggs from which the four babies hatched.

Just as the Judgement of Paris, this myth has become a pretext for painters to show a beautiful nude woman, sometimes apparently making love with the swan – a motif which would clearly not have been acceptable if it involved two humans. Moreau avoids going to that extreme, but doesn’t seem to have devised any particularly novel treatment.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Messalina (study) (1874), watercolour (?), dimensions not known, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

More puzzling was Moreau’s interest in painting the sordid tale of Messalina, here in a watercolour study from 1874 which is sometimes claimed to show the execution of Messalina. It doesn’t.

Valeria Messalina (c 17/20-48 CE) married the Roman Emperor Claudius. She was powerful, influential, and had a reputation for insatiable promiscuity, although the latter may have been invented or exaggerated for political purposes. In 48 CE, there was an unsuccessful plot against Claudius, and Messalina was, rightly or wrongly, accused of conspiracy, and executed forthwith.

In 1870, Fernand Lematte (1850-1929) had won the Prix de Rome with his painting of The Death of Messalina (1870), and her life and death did become a popular source of motifs for artists in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It is probable that Lematte’s successful painting inspired Moreau to show her life rather than its bloody end, although this study doesn’t seem to offer much promise of success.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Messalina (1874), oil on canvas, 242 x 137 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, when he started to paint a version in oils, Messalina (1874), he seems to have recognised the problems, and quickly abandoned it.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Pietà (c 1876), oil on panel, 23 x 16 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Moreau also completed two religious works, including a further version of the Pietà (c 1876), this time on a tiny panel. It incorporates some of the more radical imagery which was appearing in his mythological paintings, with the blue wing in the centre.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Saint Sebastian and the Angel (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian) (c 1876), oil on panel, 69.5 x 39.7 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum (Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop), Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

His other religious painting of this period was the much more substantial and successful panel of Saint Sebastian and the Angel (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian) (c 1876). This is a hugely popular subject for devotional paintings, showing the saint who was famously martyred by being secured to a post and shot by archers.

Moreau brings in an angel, whose huge-spread red wings fill the upper half of the panel, with a backlit crucifix above. These heighten the drama, and contrast with the fearful face of a friend (to the right of the saint’s knees), and the determined pose of one of the archers (to the left of the post). However, neither the saint nor the angel show any emotion in their expressions, in keeping with Moreau’s aversion to such theatrical techniques.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Hercules and the Lernean Hydra (study) (c 1870), oil on canvas, 142 × 168 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

By far the most successful painting of this group seems to have had its origins in this study of Hercules and the Lernean Hydra which Moreau painted in about 1870.

This refers to the second of the twelve labours imposed on Hercules (Heracles), that of hunting the Hydra in the marshes of Lernea or Lernaea, near Argos, and destroying it. The Hydra was a poisonous monster with the body of a dog and multiple serpent heads, whose breath alone was capable of killing. According to the surviving written accounts, Hercules covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to protect him from the deadly fumes, fired flaming arrows into the Hydra’s lair to awaken it, then set about trying to kill it.

When he discovered that cutting off its heads with a sickle or sword only resulted in two more growing back, Hercules enlisted the help of his nephew Iolaus, who cauterised the wounds with a firebrand to prevent regrowth. Hercules then cut off the one immortal head using a golden sword which had been given by Athena. He also took some of the Hydra’s blood, which was the poison used on the arrow with which he later killed Nessus.

This early composition shows Hercules confronting the Hydra at the start of the battle between them, with the rotting corpses of its previous victims scattered around it. There is no sign of any protective cloth, and Hercules’ only weapon seems to be a large wooden club.

During this period, Moreau also drew and painted a series of studies of poisonous snakes so that the Hydra’s heads were based on nature.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Hercules and the Lernean Hydra (1876), oil on canvas, 175 × 153 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Moreau’s final composition turned the canvas into the portrait orientation to emphasise the Hydra towering over Hercules, who is now fully armed, with the club, bow and arrows, and more. The moment chosen is still the initial confrontation, with Hercules staring steely-faced at the Hydra. This is in keeping with Moreau’s aversion to a more theatrical treatment, perhaps as Hercules severs the immortal head with his gold sword.

For his return to the Salon in 1876, Moreau chose four paintings: Saint Sebastian and the Angel, which somehow appeared in lieu of a watercolour, Hercules and the Lernean Hydra, and two different paintings of Salome, which I will consider in the next article.

Although not as successful, perhaps, as his paintings of Salome, Hercules and the Lernean Hydra was well-received and extensively debated, even generating a long-standing controversy over its possible political connotations. It was suggested at the time that the Hydra represented the forces of anarchy behind the insurgency of the Commune in 1871. Others preferred instead that the Hydra represented Bismarck and the German princes behind the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

I don’t think that Moreau really intended either allegorical reading, but he had at last re-established his reputation at the Salon.


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.