Much of Moreau’s time from 1879 to 1884 was occupied painting more than sixty watercolours illustrating the fables of La Fontaine for a very rich patron. However, he still found time to exhibit at the Salon in 1880, which turned out to be his last. The two new paintings which he exhibited there were Helen (1880) and Galatea (1880).
Unfortunately Helen seems to have been missing for many years, and this tiny image of part of it is all that I have been able to trace. The whole painting shows Helen of Troy standing serenely by the ruins of the once-mighty city, at her feet a pile of dead and dying warriors. Although it lends itself to political interpretations in the light of the Franco-Prussian War, those are left open to the viewer.
Galatea refers to the myth recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: she is a sea-nymph who falls in love with Acis. However, the cyclops Polyphemus also lusts after the beautiful Galatea, and spies on her, particularly when the couple are together. In a fit of jealousy, Polyphemus crushes Acis with a boulder. Galatea then turns his blood into the River Acis, on Sicily, making him the river’s spirit.
As with Odilon Redon later, Moreau chooses a scene in which Galatea is resting naked in the countryside with her eyes closed, and the cyclops playing sinister voyeur. Surrounding them is a magical countryside, filled with strange plants recalling anemones, as would be appropriate to a sea-nymph. Polyphemus is shown with two ‘normal’ eyesockets and lids, his single seeing eye staring out disconcertingly from the middle of his forehead.
It was in the early 1880s that Moreau had the canvases enlarged of his earlier abandoned paintings of The Suitors, The Daughters of Thespius, and Tyrtaeus Singing during the Combat, and he re-started painting them, only to abandon them again.
Nyx (1880) is a watercolour portrait of the goddess or personification of the night, surrounded by associated symbols and objects. Its gilt frame is an effective trompe l’oeil in paint.
Over the following few years, perhaps as a result of his work painting fables, Moreau seems to have worked predominantly in watercolour rather than oils. I am unsure whether his The Peacock Complaining to Juno (1881) was included in that commissioned series, or was painted in addition to it. It refers to one of Æsop’s fables, in which the peacock, Juno’s favourite bird, complained to the goddess Juno that it did not have the voice of a nightingale. Juno responded by saying that fate had assigned each bird its properties, and the peacock should be content with its lot.
Moreau’s painting of The Prodigal Son (c 1882), another watercolour, is unusual not only for its departure from his colourful ornate style, but for its choice of scene. Almost every painting made of this New Testament parable shows the moment that the prodigal son is reunited with his father, on his return.
Instead, Moreau shows the prodigal towards the end of his period of separation, when famine strikes, and the son has become destitute, working as a swineherd. It is when the son starts envying the pigs’ food that he realises that he must return to his family and face the consequences of his behaviour.
Not only is Moreau’s style so different here, but there is a complete lack of symbols, ornament, and decoration: it is a simple depiction of that scene.
That contrasts with his watercolour painting of The Sirens (1882), referring to the dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their death on the shores of their island in the Mediterranean, particularly as told in Homer’s Odyssey. In keeping with the approach in Galatea and Nyx, Moreau paints them as beautiful figures in a static scene, with a saturnine setting sun reminiscent of his Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds. There is, though, a lone sail on the horizon, which does not seem to have attracted their attention yet.
Their lower legs turn into the writhing coils of sea serpents, but the beach is not littered with human remains so as to give them real menace. Unlike many other paintings of the Sirens, Moreau does not give them wings, or musical instruments.
Leda and the Swan (c 1882) revisits this myth as another static display of female beauty, with the added twist of a large, dark aquiline bird by Leda’s feet. Although this could be an eagle, the bright red at its base suggests the flames of a phoenix just starting to self-combust. This is a curious combination of symbols of self-renewal through cyclical combustion, and a woman who laid eggs. I have yet to see a coherent explanation.
Pasiphaé (1880s) appears to have been started but then abandoned. It shows another nude female protagonist, this time embracing the head of a bull. This refers to the story of Pasiphaë, the doublet of Europa, who also had a fondness for white bulls. Given in marriage to King Minos of Crete, Poseidon cursed her to lust for bulls, and she had sex with a white bull sent by Poseidon, producing Asterion, known by the Greeks as the Minotaur, the curse of Crete.
Chimera (1884) uses the coastal backdrop of The Sirens, with its setting saturnine sun, to show another chimeral figure, with a long-haired woman riding on its shoulder. This time the chimera has a human head and body, angelic wings, and a serpent’s (or dragon’s) tail.
The Chimaeras was started and abandoned by Moreau in 1884. Another large oil painting with epic figurative content, it is set among classical ruins which may have been based in part on Tivoli, thirty kilometres from Rome, and a popular area for landscape painters, which Moreau had visited. Its foreground is densely packed with figures of great variety.
The vast majority – perhaps all – of the figures are of women, many naked, from a wide variety of myths and stories. Some appear mediaeval, and are dressed in decorated robes. Others are more classical in their appearance, and a few apparently come from east Asian art. With them are mythical creatures such as a unicorn, a prancing white bull, and some chimeras too.
Opinion is that this painting was intended to be a philosophical and symbolic meditation on Woman, which was perhaps the next inevitable step after the paintings above.
On 31 July 1884, Moreau’s mother – with his mistress Alexandrine Dureux, one of only two women in his life – died in her sleep. Moreau abandoned The Chimaeras, The Suitors, The Daughters of Thespius, and Tyrtaeus Singing during the Combat, stopped painting altogether, and cut himself off from the world.
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.