By the summer of 1890, both the women in Gustave Moreau’s life – first his mother, then his partner/mistress/muse – had died. But contrary to some claims, he did not become a recluse, nor did he stop painting. In fact, the 1890s saw his greatest involvement in teaching, several new and very ambitious works, and growing activity to transform his house and studio into a museum.
The period also saw another death which hit Moreau hard: that of Élie Delaunay, on 3 September 1891. Delaunay was another eminent history painter of the day, and a friend of Moreau’s.
As might be expected, a dominant theme in many of his works of this period continued to be women, as in The Mystic Flower (c 1890). A saintly queen bearing a prominent crucifix forms the flower, at the base of which are many other saintly figures. Behind is another of Moreau’s rocky Renaissance landscapes.
However, the saintly queen is not the Virgin, as might have been expected: she wears a green robe under a red cloak, not the standard ultramarine blue. In the sky above, a white dove representing the Holy Spirit is descending. Moreau seems to have based this on Carpaccio’s The Glorification of Saint Ursula.
Moreau commemorated Alexandrine Dureux in his dark and funereal Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice (c 1891).
Orpheus was the legendary consummate musician and poet, whose wife Eurydice died of a snakebite. Orpheus travelled to the underworld, where the couple were allowed to return to earth. But Orpheus turned to look at her during their journey out of the underworld, and she was taken back. Here, Moreau depicts Orpheus, a ghostly lyre at his left hand, mourning his wife’s death at her tomb – an obvious expression of his own feelings for his late partner.
Moreau also returned to several of his earlier themes, such as this final version of Hesiod and the Muse (1891). One of the earliest of the Greek poets, Hesiod is shown here as a youthful and androgynous figure. He has lost his shepherd’s crook, and carries his emblematic lyre. Behind him is a Muse, her angelic wings levitating her just above the ground, and a lyre slung over her back.
The pair are in a deep ravine, above which a Parthenon stands proud on a rock pinnacle. Above the Muse is a brilliant star. There is a dedicatory inscription at the foot of the painting.
Orestes and the Erinyes (c 1891) is better known as Orestes and the Furies, a fairly popular theme in painting.
It represents the culmination of a series of murders running through the lives of Agamemnon and his son Orestes, told in Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy. The first, Agamemnon, tells how Agamemnon, King of Argos, is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, apparently in revenge for his having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia prior to the Greek fleet sailing on Troy.
The second, The Libation Bearers, tells how Orestes, son of Agamemnon, returns home to avenge his father’s death. This concludes with Orestes murdering his own mother, following which (in the third play) the Furies (or Erinyes) haunt and torment him, as the anger of the dead.
Moreau’s painting of this last scene compares with his earlier and highly successful paintings of Salome, but has received far less recognition. Orestes is shown, still clutching a bloody sword from the murder of his mother, leaning in the foreground of an ornate temple. Above him are three saintly figures: not the fearsome Furies more usually shown, but the dead themselves, haunting him. There are snakes uncoiling themselves from the feet of the Furies, though.
The decoration shown is drawn from a wide range of cultures, spread across the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East, as far as India. I would love to see a detailed iconographic analysis of this work.
Following Delaunay’s death, Moreau was asked to take over his teaching, and in early 1892, his teaching studio became one of the three official studios of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The other two were directed by Gérôme and Bonnat. By all accounts he was a popular and respected teacher, almost up to his death. Among his more successful students were Georges Rouault, Albert Marquet, and Henri Matisse.
The Bride of the Night (1892) shows another woman in exotic and decorated dress, this time in a dark and gloomy nocturne. Its brushstrokes are clearly visible, showing well Moreau’s trend away from the Salon ‘finish’. This appears to anticipate the later ‘surrealist’ nocturnes of Paul Delvaux in the mid-twentieth century.
Moreau’s own health started to trouble him in 1892, when he had to have gallstones removed surgically. In the following years he went to the famous spa at Évian for periods of treatment, or ‘cures’.
Moreau’s watercolour Song of Songs (1893) brings together several of his recurrent themes: the partially-nude figure is probably female, but not overtly so. She is decorated richly, with ornate fabrics, jewels and jewellery, and carries a lyre. She holds two bunches of flowers, one red (love) and the other white (purity). Behind her is an ancient building in classical style. A red setting sun is crossed by stripes of reddened cloud.
The painting’s title harks back to a completely different work early in his career. The two paintings might summarise the changes that occurred in his work during that period.
Inspiration (c 1893) shows another variation of similar elements. The poet, complete with their lyre, has a small winged Muse on their shoulder. At their feet is a pair of swans.
Moreau also painted Saint Cecilia (1890–95) in a very similar setting (above), and Poet and Satyrs (c 1890-95) below.
Another of Moreau’s recurrent themes was the suicide of the classical poet Sappho (c 1893), shown here as she steps off the Leucadian cliff, the sun setting behind her.
In late 1894, Giovanni Boldini enlisted Moreau’s support as a patron to the first of what became the Venice Biennale exhibitions, which was held the following year. Moreau did not submit any works to it, though. He was now more concerned about his intended museum, and started to have work done to transform his house and studio into the museum.
In his last few paintings, Moreau used similar compositions and settings to those of Orestes and the Erinyes to refer to quite different narratives. Delilah (c 1896) is a dark and heavily-decorated portrait of the woman who was Samson’s undoing, whose beauty and sensuality led to his betrayal and ultimate destruction. Behind her are two massive pillars which echo those of the temple which he brought down when bringing his final revenge on the Philistines. The distant walls are decorated with ancient Egyptian figures.
His second version of Galatea (1896) is also dark, and she and Polyphemus are hemmed in within a deep canyon. Around her are not flowers, but the seaweeds and corals which are more appropriate to a sea-nymph.
I have held over consideration of what was arguably Moreau’s last great painting, and one of his iconographically most complex, to the next article, where I will consider his Jupiter and Semele.
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.