A secretive man more engaged with his private obsessions than with the public world, Gustave Moreau had a deeply ambivalent view of Women as shown in his art and in his private life. His works mostly highlight the Mephistophalean Woman who “represents the forces of destruction and chaos”. She is the “unconscious”, an “animal nature”, at once “vegetal and bestial”, and driven by “unsatisfied desire” for the fulfilment of which she is ready to “trample everything underfoot”. Hence she is naturally “fatal”.
What one remembers most about his pictures are those Female figures which threaten to disrupt and devour everything. There is something monstrous, violent and tense in them, something that Moreau must have felt in himself, rejected on the conscious level and materialized in his enigmatic and expressive art. It almost goes without saying, of course, that this conscious horror at Woman's “animal nature” was matched by an unconscious fascination and near adoration of Her.
Hercules and Omphale
Whilst many of Moreau’s works are filled with mythical Female characters, in life he was surrounded by two key Female figures: his mother, Pauline, to whom he was extremely devoted in a close reciprocal relationship and his “best and unique friend” and soul mate, Alexandrine Dureux. Moreau lived with his mother until her passing in 1884, while Dureux lived nearby. Moreau never married. His correspondence with Pauline often reads like a series of love letters. He asked for his letters to Alexandrine to be burnt, but never wrote a word about her without stressing her saintly qualities. The gentleness and kindness he prized so much in his mother and in his muse stands in vivid contrast to the Females that populated his paintings.
This contrast between the artist’s singular vision of Woman as temptress or agent of destruction and his circumscribed private world of purest dedication to his mother and Alexandrine blurs the boundary between mythical and carnal imagery in his magnificent dense canvases.
Musée Gustave Moreau, 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld, Paris
After Dureux’s death in 1890, Moreau transformed his family home and workshop into a museum, creating massive ateliers for the display of more than 5,000 of his own works of art, as well as dedicating rooms to his father, his mother and Alexandrine Dureux. Funded and maintained by himself, he left it to the French nation in his will in 1898. It was officially opened to the public in 1903 as the Musée Gustave Moreau. It remains one of the world’s most unique and extraordinary single-artist museums. Andre Breton said about the museum, "This is where beauty and love were revealed to me, through the faces and poses of Women.... I have always dreamed of breaking in there at night, with a lantern, so as to surprise the fairy with griffons in the dark."
At the end of his life, in 1892, Moreau became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he proved a gifted teacher who encouraged his students to draw on their imagination and talent rather than restricting them to artistic conventions. He believed of his teaching that: "I am the bridge over which certain of you will pass”. His teaching indeed proved inspirational, not only to the next generation, but to the Surrealists that followed and for which he was their precursor.
Oedipus The Wayfarer
Gustave Moreau was a 19th century mystic, who created hundreds of paintings behind the façade of an ordinary looking house in a most ordinary Parisian street. Yet, there was nothing ordinary about this remarkable painter. Defining his art as “passionate silence”, he left a legacy of obsessive, mysterious and haunting work, simultaneously classical and modern, which admirably justifies his reputation as a veritable master of sexual Symbolism.
Here is a charming film gallery of some of the artist's most engaging paintings.