Gustave Moreau’s intrinsically eye-pleasing and complex paintings capture moments in time. From mythical gods to ancient kings, Moreau’s self-proclaimed title as a history painter captures human (and non-human) history.
Born in Paris, France, Gustave Moreau grew up encompassed by Italian inspiration. With family in Italy, his trips to the country filled his 15-year-old mind with exquisite art by legendary painters Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. After shadowing Franćois-Édouard Picot at the École des Beaux-Arts, Gustave aspired to win the Grand Prix de Rome—much like Picot. Gustave’s early work reflected the academy’s standards. After a harsh rejection from the committee, he dropped out and developed his niche: history painting.
His interpretation of history did not include war generals and political figures. Gustave traveled back thousands of years to fantastical ages and times. Most of the time, his subjects originated from mythology, religion, and ancient history. He was deeply religious, but not in practice; we see this belief in countless paintings. The act of painting was his Sunday mass.
Gustave was a prime leader in the Symbolist movement, which formed when a group of creatives departed from Realism and sought to “represent absolute truths symbolically through language and metaphorical images.” Hence, he favored significant and allegorical stories to paint, exemplified in “Venus Rising from the Sea” (1866). His focus on spirituality, imagination, and dreams set him apart from his Symbolist counterparts.
It’s no secret Gustave favored Greek mythology. We saw this in several of his other paintings, including “Hercules and The Lernaean Hydra” and “Apollo and The Nine Muses.” Greek mythology has an incredible historical foundation and provides a host of captivating muses. There are few artistic representations and depictions of these characters, allowing artists like Gustave to explore their creativity.
Oedipus and The Sphinx, 1864
Oedipus and The Sphinx was a Greek king of Thebes and a tragic hero. He accidentally fulfilled a prophecy that resulted in him killing his father and marrying his mother. During his journey to win the Thebans’ freedom, Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, who posed a riddle for him to dissect. When Oedipus answered correctly with efficiency and confidence, the Sphinx was so impressed she threw herself into the sea, killing herself.
Gustave’s illustration of their encounter before her suicide alludes to Oedipus’ charm and power. Looking directly into her eyes, he held her as if she were his own. Her claws dig into him as she looks at him with surprise, not because he just told her he married his mother. The Sphinx’s appearance may be a nod to femme fatale, a theme common in the late 19th century; this theme used a woman’s mystery, domination, and powers of seduction to illustrate a power dynamic. She could have killed him, hence the “fatale,” but chose not to because of Oedipus’ answer. Instead, she killed herself.
Rarely do artists create art without a deeper meaning, motive, or purpose. During the time Gustave made this piece, his father had recently died. Oedipus is the paradigm for Sigmond Freud’s theory on sexuality—the hypothesized subconscious sexual desires sons have towards their mothers. Though unconfirmed, the death of his father is said to have inspired this painting.
Diomedes Devoured By His Horses, 1865
Continuing his mythology theme, Gustave depicts an incredible scene from the eighth labor of Hercules. Hera, a manipulative goddess (a recurring motif in Greek mythology), sought to torment Hercules. She cast a spell to make him temporarily insane, resulting in him killing his wife and children. After the curse had lifted, the magical fog cleared from his brain, leaving him perplexed and troubled. As his punishment for the murders, the gods required Hercules to complete 12 labors.
In the background of Gustave’s masterpiece, a small and discreet Hercules watches Diomedes’ unfortunate fate. Violent and intense scenes reside alongside his love for mythology and history. Primarily, this painting is whimsical in the most melancholy way. A death involving slow, pain-staking dismemberment could never be seen as ethereal—unless you’re Gustave Moreau.
The mythology enthusiast also painted other scenes from Hercules' required labors, like the meeting of Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, a seven-headed serpentine monster. While not as visually excruciating as Diomedes’ fate, it emphasizes Gustave’s fascination with Greek mythology. He depicts “Diomedes Devoured By His Horses” and “Hercules and The Lernaean”—both intense and violent scenarios—so calmly and with such stillness that the viewer forgets the story’s brutality.
The Frogs Asking For A King, 1884
Slightly shifting from Greek mythology, “The Frogs Asking For A King” is a French fable with mythical characters. The frogs are calling to Zeus to bring them a king. After this request, Zeus sent the frogs a log as a king. Scared and confused, the frogs ran away until they realized the log was not dangerous. Now disappointed, the amphibians called again to ask for a new king. To teach a lesson of gratuity, Zeus sent the frogs a water snake that ate them all.
Fables always end with a lesson. This French fable amplifies how populations are often never satisfied with what they receive, even if the people demand it. More modernly, this story represents how societies want structure and guidance—a government, president, or king—but are unhappy when leaders do not act in their favor or how they imagined. Gustave created over 30 watercolor paintings following Jean de la Fontaine’s fables.
In addition to Gustave’s famous fascinations, he was known for his exquisite and ethereal watercolor paintings. “Eve” captures a scene of Eve—the first woman God made, according to the Bible—in a mystical forest. Gustave continued his color scheme with blue against gold with stark lights and darks.
Although this late 19th-century painting may not have a deeper meaning, like “Diomedes Devoured By His Horses,” Eve herself is a symbol for so much more than the beginning of life. Tempted by the snake—a representation of evil—in the Garden of Eden, Eve is given a chance to prove her loyalty to God. Once she and Adam ate the forbidden fruit, betraying her Creator, God dealt them their fate: mortality.
Gustave has crafted countless paintings that illustrate immortal figures. It’s interesting to note his obsession and infatuation with the fantastical. Could he have been longing for an escape from his mortal body? Or was his goal as a Symbolist artist and history painter the only rationale for depicting these subjects?
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