Gustave Moreau: The Father of the Symbolism Movement & Symbolist Art
“The career of [a] painter is a true Priesthood,” -- Gustave Moreau.
Our collection of Gustave Moreau artworks:
Gustave Moreau is undoubtedly one of the most revered and fascinating painters of the 19th century. He’s best known for his magnificent illustrations of visual symbols and figures from other-worldly realms, both mythical and biblical. Each of which he painted with amazingly photographic precision.
Thanks to his alluring paintings which borrowed a big leaf from the Exoticism and Italian Renaissance, Gustave Moreau has for centuries fascinated many modern Symbolist art scholars, artists, and writers alike.
Moreau is often given credit for starting the so-called Symbolism Movement in the world of art. More importantly, he ushered in and influenced a new era of Symbolist painters, including Odilon Redon, Jean Delville, and André Breton.
His work, on the other hand, was highly influenced by an array of painters of his time, including François-Édouard Picot, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Nicolas Poussin, just to name a few.
Biography of Gustave Moreau
Early Life and Education
Gustave Moreau was born in 1826 at 6 Rue des Saints-Peres in Paris, France to somewhat well-off family of a musician mother (Adele Pauline Desmoutier) and architect father (Louis Jean Marie Moreau). As a child, he always struggled with illness and poor health, but his father made sure that he got a quality education in the classics.
Even in childhood, Moreau had a knack for painting and a deep passion for art. In fact, he got his feet wet in the world of drawing/painting at a tender age of 8. However, it was not until he paid a visit to Italy at the age of 15 when he was particularly drawn to art, most notably Italian Renaissance, as well as Byzantine and Greco-Roman ancient art.
In 1846, at the age of 18, Gustave Moreau got admission to Ecole des Beaux-Arts after studying and preparing for entrance exam under François-Edouard Picot. Later, the Neoclassical painter became a huge influence on him.
In the early 1950s, Moreau left Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study at the Musée du Louvre under his new-found influence, Théodore Chassériau. And a couple of years later, he started participating in the art exhibition, Paris Salon.
Moreau was so enchanted by Théodore Chassériau’s paintings that he set up his studio on the same floor as him. He was especially fascinated by Chassériau's ability to combine romantic elements with neoclassical aesthetics. Unfortunately, Théodore Chassériau, who had become a very close friend, died at a rather young age of 37 in 1856. Moreau, however, continued to work in his studio situated in what’s today the Musée National Gustave Moreau. Needless to say, Chassériau played a key role in Moreau’s formative years as an artist.
Moreau’s first work was called Pietà, a painting of his lover for over 25 years, Adelaide-Alexandrine Dureux. The masterpiece can now be found in the cathedral at Angoulême.
Gustave Moreau and his Professional Life
Battered from the death of his mentor, Chassériau, Gustave Moreau revisited Italy, which was then experiencing an upheaval in the art scene. In Italy, Moreau studied exhaustively the Mannerist and Renaissance art, and about the same time met Edgar Degas, whom he traveled extensively with. The two influenced each other’s work thereafter.
It was not until 1864 that Moreau rose to limelight in the world of French art when he exhibited his work Oedipus and the Sphinx at the Paris Salon. This marked the start if his career as a professional painter, and caught the eye of art critics and enthusiasts alike. As if that wasn’t good enough for Moreau, the painting was bought by the 1st cousin of Emperor Napoleon the Third, Prince Napoléon.
In 1869, Gustave Moreau showed another eyebrow-raising work, Prometheus and Europe, also the at the Paris Salon. Despite receiving harsh reviews from critics, the painting went on to snag a medal award. The critique took a toll on him, and he went silent for a number of years. In 1876, he returned to the Salon with a bang by exhibiting his wildly successful painting, The Apparition. Thanks to this work, he was named in 1883 a French Legion Order of Honor.
In 1886, two years after losing his mother, Gustave Moreau was adopted as the artistic ambassador/leader of Symbolist Movement (Le Symbolisme) which had been formed by poet Jean Moréas earlier that year. Together with Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Charles Baudelaire, Moreau took Symbolism art to the next level.
1888 was a turning point for Moreau. Not only was he elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, but he also lost his lover Alexandrine. In 1891, he worked on Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice, in memoriam of Alexandrine.
In 1892, Moreau became a professor at the French art institute, where he taught until 1898. At Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he’s credited with teaching most Fauvist Movement artists like Georges Rouault, René Piot, Georges Desvallières, and Henri Matisse.
Gustave Moreau passed on in 1898.
The Legacy of Gustave Moreau
Moreau’s legacy is felt far and wide in the art world. His work in the Symbolism realm inspired a diversity of painters such as Henri Matisse, George Rouault, surrealist Salvador Dalí, Jeff Koons, André Breton, Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano, and many more.
Matisse, the painter who changed the face of modern art, made it clear that Gustave Moreau’s work and guidance were key to his artistic maturity. Moreover, most of Moreau’s students went on to conceive the Fauvism, an art movement that was all the rage in the early 20th century.
Gustave Moreau artworks of note:
Oedipus and the Sphinx
It’s one of the most important pieces of Moreau’s mature period. The work is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Moreau painted the Orpheus after his new-found fame at the Paris Salon. It’s largely based on Greek mythology. Currently, it’s housed at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
A Symbolist masterpiece, The Apparition is based on the biblical narrative of John the Baptist. It’s also found at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
As you might expect, it’s inspired by the mythical story of a sea-nymph called Galatea. You can now find it at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice
Painted in memory of Alexandrine, Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice is now housed at the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris.