During the late 1880s, Gustave Moreau had largely recovered from the death of his mother. Although he still did not submit his work for major public exhibitions, in 1886 the Goupil Gallery mounted a one-man show of some of his paintings of La Fontaine’s fables, together with six of his other watercolours. This opened in Paris, then moved to London.
Moreau also engaged more with his peers. In 1888 he visited Belgium and the Netherlands to study Old Masters there, and was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He shunned teaching commitments at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, though, and the following year showed only two of his older works (The Young Man and Death, and Galatea) at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Helen at the Scaean Gate of Troy (c 1885) was a further attempt to paint Helen of Troy, this time by the city’s major gate. This painting is sometimes read as being his move towards abstract painting, which is manifestly not the case.
He continued his series of paintings of beautiful nudes in narrative settings with Cleopatra (1887), another elaborately-decorated watercolor in which the moon is crossed by cloud, giving it the appearance of the planet Saturn.
Evening (1887) is a rather looser watercolour, set at night and under a thin sliver of a moon.
Although its date is not known, his The Deva and the Gryphon was most probably painted during this period too. The Deva (also sometimes known as a ‘fairy’) appears more European in form, and the accompanying gryphon (or griffin) was a mythical beast with the head and wings of an eagle on the body and legs of a lion. This parallels his interest in painting unicorns with their female companions.
The Travelling Poet also seems to date from this period in Moreau’s life. It doesn’t apparently refer to any more specific story, but just shows an androgynous poet with an Indian musical instrument on their back, a winged horse like Pegasus, and a brilliant star in the sky immediately above them.
In 1886, Moreau completed his greatest single work of art, La vie de l’humanité (The Life of Humanity), a large polyptych which he had started more than five years previously.
The uppermost lunette shows the figure of Christ, arms outstretched as if still crucified. The uppermost tier of paintings shows the Golden Age of Adam, symbolising childhood. From the left these show morning prayer in the garden of Eden, ecstasy at midday, and repose and sleep in the evening.
The middle tier, from the left, shows the Silver Age of youth in the form of Orpheus and Hesiod: the morning is spent with Hesiod and the muse of inspiration, Orpheus appears at midday with music, then Hesiod returns for the evening, with tears.
The lowest tier, from the left, shows the Age of Fire, with Cain symbolising maturity. The morning shows work, the midday break, and death in the night.
Moreau wrote that these phases of humanity were also phases of life, passing from the purity and innocence of childhood, through the poetic aspirations and sadnesses of youth, to the pain and suffering of adult life, and death, with the redemption of Christ over all. This idiosyncratic combination of Christian symbols with those of myth (Orpheus) and the classical world (Hesiod) provides an important insight into much of his art.
Moreau’s unfinished oil painting of The Pierides (1886-89) is another puzzle. First, it is unclear which Pierides it depicts: although the name is sometimes applied to the nine Muses, it can equally be used of the nine daughters of King Pieros of Emathia; the latter challenged the Muses at their own arts, lost, and were turned into magpies as punishment.
In any case, there are at least fifteen figures in the painting, although some are in groups of three, and some are winged. It is possible that some of the black-winged figures are intended to be non-Muse Pierides who have been turned into magpies and are now fleeing the scene. If that is the case, this painting could represent the Muses in triumph over the daughters of King Pieros of Emathia.
The Wolf and the Lamb (1889) is, I think, a monochrome image of a painting which was made in full colour, although because this may be set at night, that is not certain by any means. It looks to be a simple allegory of good (the lamb, with references to Christ too) and evil (the wolf).
He also painted another scene including what seems by now to have become his favourite mythical creature, in The Unicorns (c 1885-90). Although the quality of this image is not good, it does show no less than three unicorns being fondled and petted by an incongruously nude woman and several others, who are wearing elborate decorated robes. In the right foreground is a crystal chalice, which may be a reference to one of the complex of grail legends.
The Toilette (c 1885-90) is a watercolour which may have been an experiment in style. Although based on Moreau’s highly-detailed decorative style, for example in the patterned fabrics at the foot of the robes, Moreau has also applied large blots and patches of pure colour. These could indicate its lack of completion, or even damage to the painting (although as they follow forms, that appears unlikely). However, this work has been signed; if that is Moreau’s signature, it surely indicates that he considers it complete and ready to be viewed.
After his polyptych, Moreau’s most finished work of this period is this relatively conventional oil painting of Saint George and the Dragon (1889-90), which is also one of his few narrative paintings to show a traditional climax in the story, and the moment of peripeteia. The king’s daughter, who was to have been fed to the dragon, is seen perched above the gorge, praying, with her father’s castle behind in the distance.
Saint George has just impaled his lance into the dragon as he gets the better of the beast. In the traditional legend, George then calls to the princess to throw him her girdle, which he uses to capture and harness the dragon so he can lead it around.
The Triumph of Alexander the Great (c 1873-90) is a magnificent oil painting showing Alexander, dressed in white, sat high on his throne in the foreground. Around him is an extraordinary imagined landscape with imposing buildings forming a gorge, and a stack of grand buildings, towers, and other monumental structures further back. These are set at the foot of a massive rock pinnacle.
Having conquered the Persian Empire (Achaemenid Empire), in the late spring of 327 BCE, Alexander the Great set his sights on the Indian subcontinent. When he crossed the River Indus and started to campaign in the Punjab, he met determined opposition in the army of King Raja Purushottama, known in the classical literature as King Poros (or Porus).
Alexander fought his last major battle against Poros on the Hydaspes (Jhelum) River, near Bhera, and his own horse Bucephalus was killed during the intense fighting in the summer of 326 BCE. King Poros so impressed Alexander that he made him an ally. Afterwards, Alexander founded Alexandria Nikaia (meaning victory), and his army later revolted near the Ganges River, stopping any further advance into India. Three years later, Alexander the Great died.
Moreau drew on a wide variety of sources for this most elaborate of Indian fantasy cityscapes: miniature paintings of south India, photographs by English travellers, several illustrated books, and Le Magasin Pittoresque, a contemporary illustrated magazine. Geneviève Lacambre (quoted in Cooke) has identified within it a borrowed image of a Jain saint from Karnataka (Mysore), India, for example.
His triumph in completing this painting was limited: for the last few years, Moreau’s partner/mistress/muse Alexandrine Dureux had been in poor health. After his mother’s death, she had been his only real friend, and the only woman in his life. On 18 March 1890, she died, aged 51.
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.