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In Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality, and Symbolism, Peter Cooke explores the artist’s work from its beginnings in the early 1850s to the final ambitious projects of the late 1890s. He examines Moreau’s lifelong endeavor to revitalize le grand art in France—history painting in its most ambitious form—and to combat the endemic materialism of the age with a spiritual and moral type of painting. In the 1840s, Moreau studied under François-Édouard Picot and was enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, only to drop out after two unsuccessful Prix de Rome attempts. Thereafter, he embarked on an exploration of what it meant to make ambitious history painting.
As Cooke demonstrates, the artist’s answer to the question of how that goal might be accomplished was through the invention of a highly idiosyncratic, eclectic style, one that drew inspiration as much from European medieval and early Renaissance painting as from Indian and Islamic art. Going through a phase of Romanticism in the early 1850s under the influence of Théodore Chassériau and Eugène Delacroix (he eventually dismissed the latter as having a theatrical, overexcited imagination), Moreau began to come into his own after a spiritual crisis he experienced in the course of a sojourn in Italy, which led him to formulate an understanding of the role of the spiritual and the ideal in high art. In Cooke’s account, the antinaturalist and antidemocratic aesthetic Moreau explored in the ensuing decades countered the dominant naturalist paradigm in French art.
The first chapter, entitled “A Complex Oeuvre,” brings into high relief a central aspect of Moreau’s art, perceptible from his early years onward: excess. A sense of abundance—traceable in stylistic multiplicity, a plethora of decoration, and copious, often oblique iconographical references and symbolism—is laced throughout Moreau’s work. For Cooke, all of this abundance was in the service of producing an art that was evocative and polysemous. Indeed, it was this excess that made it difficult for his contemporaries to classify Moreau, labeling him an eccentric. The proliferation of the symbol, coupled with depiction of static, contemplative figures who refused to engage in narrative action, made Moreau’s art problematic in the eyes of critics and the Salon public who had been steeped in the easily legible narratives of history painting and ethnographic Orientalism, according to Cooke. Beginning in the 1880s, however, Moreau’s work appeared differently to a new generation of artists and critics. The artist was hailed as a pioneer of the fin-de-siècle spirit of decadence thanks to Joris-Karl Huysmans’s momentous interpretation of the painting Salome (1876) and watercolor The Apparition (1876) in the novel À rebours (1884), so it is all the more surprising, as Cooke argues, that Moreau’s legacy was relegated to an outmoded academicism by subsequent modernist art historiography in the aftermath of the First World War. Cooke contends that the 1961 retrospective organized during the tenure of André Malraux as the Minister of Culture in France marked a turning point in Moreau’s posthumous reception, after which more critically balanced studies positioned the artist as a Symbolist painter. As Cooke demonstrates, Moreau distanced himself from stylistic labels attached to his art in his lifetime, and throughout his career he consistently considered himself a practitioner and reformer of le grand art, aspiring to produce multi-figure grandes machines in the most august mode of history painting.
In chapter 2, “The Reinvention of History Painting, 1860–1869,” Cooke situates Moreau’s beginnings in the incomplete but programmatic The Suitors (begun 1860) and examines the rise of his star at the Salon of 1864 with Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864) against the background of a widespread sense of the decline of le grand art. He positions Moreau’s work decidedly against a conventionalized form of history painting that had come to dominate French art by that moment, a theatrical paradigm that sought to engage the viewer’s imagination and trigger her or his emotional reaction through a series of narrative devices in dramatic scenes. According to Cooke, Moreau’s attempts to overcome the narrative and didactic legibility of this formula took the form of two related yet distinct strategies. First, he chose to depict impassive, introspective human figures whose emotions could not be easily decoded by the viewer; second, he committed himself to a virtuosic, often experimental painterly facture. Moreau’s alternative pictorial project aspired to evoke rather than to report, give rise to a mood rather than elucidate a story, and ultimately trigger in the viewer an experience of spiritual introspection. Cooke cites Oedipus and the Sphinx as a successful early example of this antitheatrical tendency. In this painting, taking his cue from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s already unconventional depiction of a noncombative confrontation in Oedipus Explaining the Riddle of the Sphinx (1808), Moreau increased the psychological tension between the hero and the beast, interiorizing the drama by imbuing the figures with a gestureless immobility. According to Cooke, in other paintings shown at the Salons in the 1860s, Moreau, with varying critical success, explored the implications of this decided change in the role of the human figure. He finds the most successful representative of Moreau’s aesthetic project in this decade in Orpheus (1865) of the Salon of 1866, in which an enigmatic Thracian girl purely of the painter’s invention gazes intently at the severed head of Orpheus, cueing the viewer into imitating her act of quiet contemplation.
Chapter 3, “Painting Against the Republic, 1871–1880,” assesses Moreau’s work in 1870s, in a milieu marked by renewed interest in history painting in France in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. Cooke traces in Moreau’s antimaterialist spiritualism in this decade a concurrence with the ideas of Catholic royalists in opposition to the secular republicans. After a hiatus of seven years, Moreau returned to the Salon in 1876 with Hercules and the Lernean Hydra (1875–76), Salome, and The Apparition. The first painting, ostensibly depicting one of the twelve labors of Hercules, was Moreau’s contribution to the plethora of works commemorating France’s defeat in the early years of the Third Republic. Cooke reads the painting as true to the artist’s antitheatrical aesthetic of contemplative immobility, insofar as it does not depict action but a static confrontation: an opposition between materialist darkness and spiritual light, the former articulated in the romanticizing style applied to represent the monster Hydra, and the latter in Hercules’s neoclassical ideal masculine beauty.
In Salome too, in Cooke’s reading, Moreau upheld his antinaturalist and antitheatrical aesthetics, in pointed dialogue with milestones in the theatrical paradigm of history painting, taking on nothing less than Jacques-Louis David’s iconic Oath of the Horatii (1784) and Ingres’s Antiochus and Stratonice (1840), as well as works by contemporary rivals such as Henri Regnault’s Salome (1870) and Jean-Paul Laurens’s Pope Formosus and Pope Stephen VI (1872). For Cooke, another salient aspect of the painting is the element of excess in the painting’s iconography as well as the virtuosity of its facture, which verges on the decorative. Simultaneous, often overlapping references to Indian, Islamic, and Chinese art and architecture, together with a rich paint handling, contribute to an overall effect of universality, as noted by Salon critics at the time; the painting does not depict a specific historical milieu, but aspires to evoke “the whole of the Orient” in the words of Georges Lafenestre. Moreau brought the decade to a close with works that declared his more explicitly Christian tendencies in the Exposition Universelle of 1878. The year 1880 marked Moreau’s final participation in the Salon in his lifetime.
Chapter 4, “The Ideal and Matter: From Oedipus and the Sphinx to The Dead Lyres,” maps out a central theme in Moreau’s art: the confrontation between the ideal and the material. In Cooke’s account, this theme at times takes the form of an explicit denunciation of naturalism in Moreau’s work; at others an embattled preoccupation with material sensuality and sexual desire; and still in some other instances, such as in his last major project The Dead Lyres, a confrontation of Christian spirituality with paganism. Unfinished at the time of the artist’s death in 1898, The Dead Lyres is an apocalyptic vision, in Cooke’s interpretation, showing the destruction of pagan poets and artists by the forces of nature. A decided abandonment of the figure of the pagan poet appeared around 1890, concurrent with Moreau’s turn toward Catholic mysticism.
In the final years of Moreau’s life, we see him preoccupied with his legacy, both in the form of his teaching and in undertaking the creation of a museum, as related in Cooke’s final chapter, “Working for Posterity: The Students and the Museum.” Appointed professeur chef d’atelier at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1892, Moreau boasted among his pupils Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault, among others. The artist’s enduring goal to rejuvenate le grand art as well as his antinaturalist and antitheatrical pictorial project thoroughly informed his pedagogy. Part of Moreau’s education consisted of instructing his students to copy the Old Masters at the Louvre, in particular the art of the early Renaissance and Rembrandt van Rijn and the Dutch and Flemish tradition, but also, as known from students’ recollections, that of French masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries including Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Jean-Siméon Chardin. The importance Moreau gave to the institution of the museum as the locus of artistic tradition explains the extraordinary effort he put into transforming his house into a museum in the last years of his life. The book concludes with a final analysis that effectively demonstrates the spirit of experimentation that underlay Moreau’s handling of his material, be it painting or watercolor, especially among the private works held at the Musée Gustave Moreau. Cooke’s analysis in these concluding pages reveals Moreau to be a rich and complex painter who was clearly fascinated by the endless possibilities of an evocative facture, and who experimented with brushwork until the end, never falling into a repetitious routine.
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Massachusetts Amherst