Gustave Moreau was a major artistic figure of French Symbolism, originally a literary movement initiated by Baudelaire and Poe and continued by the poets Mallarmé and Verlaine. It aimed to reveal the oneiric and sometimes decadent spirituality beneath the surface of reality.
Moreau's early works were influenced by the romantics Delacroix and Chassériau. His first success, Oedipus and the Sphinx, won a medal at the Salon of 1864.The, no doubt, confused reaction of audiences may be judged from the ironic comments of an early critic: "like a pastiche of Mantegna created by a German student who relaxes from his painting by reading Schopenhauer.” Today the influence of Mantegna seems less obvious than the debt to Ingres' (1780–1867) version of the subject, where Moreau's more exotic treatment subverts the hallowed tradition of French classicism without abandoning it. He noted he was concerned with the opposition between good and evil, male and female, and physicality and spirituality.
Moreau painted further works in the same vein but before long, critics had become negative and in his Salome dancing before Herod (Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles) he developed a more atmospheric less classical style, indebted to Rembrandt. The theme of Salome exploits the contemporary fascination with the femme fatale, more aggressively demonstrated in a watercolor of the Apparition (musée d'Orsay, Paris) where a vengeful Salome points to the severed head of the Baptist hovering before her. In his later Jupiter and Semele (musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris) the sheer density of jewel-like detail is overwhelming: like an objet d'art of the Renaissance or a pictorial kunstkamer; it is on the one hand a pictorial equivalent of the Decadent writing of Oscar Wilde and Huysmans, on the other, a foretaste of the gothic fantasies of Mervyn Peake or Tolkein. It has been interpreted as an allegory of regeneration by death, and most eloquently described by the artist as follows: "In the midst of colossal aerial buildings with neither foundations nor rooftops, covered with teeming quivering vegetation, this sacred flora standing out against the dark blues of the starry vaults and the deserts of the sky, the god so often invoked appears in his still veiled splendor."
In 1892 Moreau was appointed professor at the École des Beaux-Arts, where pupils included Rouault (1871–1958) and Matisse (1869–1954). He took a more open approach to teaching than usual, allowing students to go their own way.
Top Auction Results for Gustave Moreau
Le Poète et la Sirène
Sold for $2,750,000
New York, Sotheby’s, 24 October 1989, 19th Century European Paintings and Drawings, lot 82
Sold for £677,250 ($1,254,166)
London, Christie’s, 18 November 2004, 19th Century European Art including Spanish Paintings, lot 21
Sold for $1,080,000
New York, Christie’s, 19 April 2005, 19th Century European Art, lot 178