|Self-portrait of Gustave Moreau, 1850|
Moreau attended boarding school, the College Rollin, beginning at age 11 but left when his sister died. At the school, he won an award for draftsmanship. After he left school, his parents educated him at home, where they had a large library of books that Moreau read eagerly, including works on mythology. Moreau also 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 mother, aunt, and uncle took him on a trip to Italy, where they visited Turin, Milan, Parma, Pisa, Florence, and Genoa. Moreau's sketchbook from this trip still exists and is kept in the Moreau Museum in Paris.
Moreau knew he wanted to be an artist and his parents supported him in his goal. In the mid-1840s, his parents showed his work to a painter, Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, who also encouraged him. Around 1844, Moreau began to study art with the neoclassical painter and art instructor Francois-Edouard Picot, who gave his student a solid technical foundation for his work. While studying with Picot, Moreau painted studies of nudes, copied Old Masters, and made oil sketches and large paintings.
For a very long time, it was assumed that Moreau remained single throughout his life, devotedly living with his mother until her death in 1884. However, it is now known that in 1859, he met Alexandrine Dureux, his “best and unique friend”. Sometimes labelled his “mistress”, it seems she was more like his muse, if not soulmate. They were united for 27 years, but never married, for unknown reasons. All of his correspondence with Alexandrine was burnt by the painter himself, which is why it took decades before their relationship was discovered.
|Project for the tomb of Alexandrine Dureux|
Shortly after his mother had died, Alexandrine took ill herself and she became worse in 1889. When she died the following year, he constructed a monument in the cemetery of Montmartre, near to where he knew he would be buried later. He also painted “Orpheus on the tomb of Eurydice”, a very mythical theme about soulmates, thus underlining how he saw the bond that he and Alexandrine shared.
|Orpheus on the tomb of Eurydice|
In the Salon of 1864, Moreau exhibited his painting Oedipus and the Sphinx, the work that launched him into prominence. To Moreau, the work represented man facing the eternal mystery with moral strength and self-confidence. "Outstanding examples of psychological and physical detachment can be seen in one after another of Moreau's paintings," wrote Schiff. "In Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), for instance, the winged creature—half nude female, half lion, an incubus clawed into Oedipus' breast— does not seem to inflict pain at all. Instead, the grotesque creature and its placid victim appear to be dreamily engrossed in each other, although Oedipus is soon to answer the Sphinx's riddle and she, or it, is to fall dead to the ground, finally, having already shredded any number of hapless voyagers unable to answer the riddle. Their bits and pieces are, in Moreau's superbly rendered canvas, strewn about the foreground." Finally, Moreau had achieved formal recognition of his talent. From then on, he helped re-energize the tradition of history painting, giving epic tales poetic imagination, exoticism, and wonder.
In the Salon of 1865, Moreau exhibited Young Man and Death and Jason and Medea. In 1866, he showed Orpheus and Diomedes Devoured by his Horses. He exhibited each year in the Salon through 1869, when his works were criticized in the press. After that he sold a few paintings to admirers but rarely left his studio.
In 1876, he began to exhibit in the Salon again, showing three of his most famous paintings: Hercules and the Hydra, Salome Dancing Before Herod, and The Apparition. He last exhibited in the Salon in 1880, showing Galatea and Helen.
Moreau was devoted to Alexandrine Dureux for 31 years, until her death in 1890 at age 54. After her death, Moreau's style altered. "His brushwork became looser and more expressive; his pigment grew thicker, more impastoed; and his forms became increasingly abstract," Schiff wrote. "The overriding effect of these later paintings was to evoke an emotional response through the use of color, line and form. Some even view his later nonfigurative works as heralds of Abstract Expressionism. Certainly his art inspired a generation of Symbolist painters, poets and writers and had a marked impact on other artists, including the Surrealists and the radical group known as the Fauves."
In 1888, Moreau was elected to the Academie des Beaux-Arts. At age 65, he became a professor in charge of a studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was considered the last great teacher there. He taught Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse, and others, developing their natural talents and encouraging them to use color imaginatively.
In 1895, Moreau remodeled his house into a four-story building to create a museum for his works. He died of stomach cancer in Paris on April 18, 1898. Moreau left to the state his home and its contents, about 1,200 paintings and watercolors and roughly 10,000 drawings. Moreau sold about 500 works while alive, and these are in other collections and museums.
From about 1914 until 1960, art historians lost interest in Moreau, viewing him as an eccentric, although he was always considered a great teacher. In 1961, a large retrospective of Moreau was held in Paris at the Louvre, which led to more exhibitions in the 1960s. In 1974, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibition and so did the Zurich Kunsthaus in 1986. In 1998 and 1999, an exhibition of his works appeared in Paris, Chicago, and New York. "Exactly where Moreau fits in, and his real place in art history, is as difficult to determine in 1999, however, as it was in 1899," wrote Laura Morowitz in The Art Bulletin. "Perhaps our only safe judgment is to agree with the critic Theophile Gautier, writing a century and a half ago, that ' … his work stands in singular isolation, and whether it pleases or not, one has to reckon with it."'