Nineteenth-century French painter Gustave Moreau was best-recognized for his elaborate compositions and his palette of brilliant, glowing colors. Contrary to the impressionist and naturalist artists of his time, his mythological and erotic creatures were created through a unique vision he referred to as peinture épique (epic painting).
Gustave Moreau was born April 6, 1826, in Paris, France, the son of successful architect Louis-Jean Marie Moreau and Adele Pauline Desmoutier. As a young boy, his father encouraged his studies of neoclassical engravings of Englishman John Flaxman. He attended College Rollin (a boarding school) at eleven years old, winning an award for draftsmanship. He studied Roman architecture, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the artistic themes of the Middle East and Far East, Shakespeare, and the Bible.
In 1841, Moreau’s first trip to Italy with his mother, aunt and uncle inspired some early sketches that displayed an obvious talent. In 1844, he studied nudes, copied Old Masters under the teachings of neo-classical painter Francois-Edouard Picot. He went on to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris for several years.
In the early 1850s, Moreau associated himself with Romantic painters Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Chasseriau, two artists who had a great impact on his future in the art world. He found a new love for exotic romanticism, dramatic lighting, and bright colors that inspired works such as ‘Scene from the Song of Songs’ and the ‘Death of Darius’; both were exhibited in the Salon of 1853. A year later in 1854, Louis Moreau bought a house on rue de La Rochefoucauld that served as both home and studio to the artist for many years.
During a two year stay in Italy, from 1857-1859, Moreau absorbed all there was to absorb from Renaissance art. In Rome, he studied the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio and Sodoma, and took an intense interest in the art of the ancient world. A friendship with Edgar Degas during that time paved the way for their travels to Siena and Pisa where the artists studied the Italian primitives.
In 1876, works such as ‘Salome’, ‘Hercules’ and the ‘Hydra of Leme’ stunned and electrified viewers, and established his style as an artist. Gustave Moreau once said, “I have never looked for dream in reality or reality in dream…" and "I have allowed my imagination free play, and I have not been led astray by it.".
Moreau ventured on a new path that invited him to teach at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1892. His students included Matisse and Rouault. His last painting ‘Jupiter and Sémélé’ was created two years before his death on April 18, 1898. He bequeathed his collection of works to the state. Six thousand of his art pieces can be viewed in the Gustave Moreau Museum which was once his Paris home. It was opened to the public in 1903.
Since his death, Gustave Moreau has been viewed as a transitional artist, one of the precursors of Surrealism. ‘The Triumph of Alexander the Great’ (1874) is a good example of the type of art that set the path for future surrealists. Many Symbolist painters and writers, including the radical Fauves, have been influenced by his work.