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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gustave Moreau

One of the greatest sources of French national pride is that (supposedly) all Frenchmen are born romantics. After all, France was the birthplace of Romanticism. The Romantic era in French painting 1820-1860) grew out of the static, academic excesses of Davidian Classicism with such painters as Delacroix and Gericault leading the way. It was mirrored in both literature and music, some would even say architecture as well. But it faded. Beset first by the Realist movement, then Impressionism, little remained of it's heroic glory except its legacy of color over drawing. Then, in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century, its dying embers suddenly flamed brightly in what has been called Symbolism.  French artists such as Rodolphe Bresdin, Odilon Redon, and Gustave Moreau echoed Gustave Klimt in Germany in their jewel-like impressions of ancient mythological and biblical subjects. It was not Neo-Romanticism, but it was romantic.

Diomedes Being Devoured by his
Horses,1865, Gustave Moreau
In 1998, an art historian was digging through a cupboard in a museum and made a discovery art historians go to bed dreaming about. He pulled out a large roll of canvas containing an unfinished painting done by the premier Symbolism painter, Gustave Moreau. It depicted the mythical Diomedes Being Devoured by his Horses. Okay, so it was  more of a nightmare than a dream; but it was nonetheless a startling discovery. How could such a major work, even unfinished, go unnoticed for a hundred years? Well, when Moreau died in 1898, he left a large, three-and-a-half-story house in Paris packed to the rafters with some 8,000 to 15,000  of his paintings, drawings, and watercolors (so many no one is quite sure). Add to that mounds of books, papers, and journals and it's little wonder it took curators a hundred years to go through all the stuff.

Oedipus and the Sphinx,1864,
Gustave Moreau
Moreau, during his lifetime, was never wealthy, but then again, he was never hurting for money either. His work sold, but he was never forced to pursue sales, and because of that, his fame was limited to France itself. Not until 1964 was the first retrospective of his work held outside the country. During his lifetime, it would be safe to say he hoarded his work. He painted for himself. His favorite subject was the biblical Salome, best known for her dance numbers before King Herod.  Moreau painted her so many times he became knows as the "Painter of Salome." Yet his most famous painting, purchased by  Napoleon III in 1864 for 6000 francs, was Oedipus and the Sphinx, the mythological tale of a monster who posed riddles and devoured all those who could not solve them. The romantic Oedipus succeeded, of course, and good triumphed over evil.  Today, Salome, Oedipus, Orpheus, Hercules, Prometheus, Europa and the whole gang romantically haunt  Moreau's old three-and-a-half-story studio,  the Musee national Gustave Moreau in Paris.

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