Gustave Moreau began his career as a traditional academic painter exhibiting at Paris Salons. After a series of negative reviews, the artist withdrew from society, not emerging for seven years. The brilliant, fantastical paintings he revealed upon his return to the Parisian art scene stunned critics and inspired a new generation of artists.
“I am dominated by one thing,” Moreau wrote, “an irresistible, burning attraction towards the abstract.” Remembered today as an architect of the Symbolist movement, here are five of Gustave Moreau’s most astonishing paintings.
1. The Apparition (1876)
Moreau’s provocative painting comes from the biblical story of Salome. In the story, King Herod Antipas receives criticism from John the Baptist for marrying his half-brother’s former wife, Herodias. Herod responds to this criticism by having John the Baptist thrown into prison, though he is reluctant to have him executed on account of the man’s popularity.
The Book of Matthew records that “on Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked.” The Apostle Mark’s account of this performance is equally tame. Herodias, spiteful and much maligned in the tale, presses her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Reluctantly, Herod complies.
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Salome was probably just out of puberty and was related to King Herod by both blood and marriage (some combination of niece and stepdaughter). Nevertheless, Salome’s dance at Herod’s birthday celebration has been repeatedly portrayed as overtly sexual in both art and literature for generations, and Moreau’s depiction is no exception.
Moreau paints Salome mostly nude and bedecked with jewelry. A lavish robe falls from her shoulders, held in place only by a strategically-placed jeweled belt around her hips. She points at a horrifying apparition before her: the radiant, disembodied head of John the Baptist, gushing blood from the neck. The bloodied sword of the man to the far right in the painting appears to indicate that the execution has already taken place, and the head of John the Baptist is a spiritual manifestation rather than a premonition.
Gustave Moreau had a penchant for painting femmes fatales. He painted Salome many times and, in fact, created multiple versions of The Apparition. In most, Salome has black hair instead of blonde, and a musician (rather than a panther) sits at her feet. This 1876 version is the most popular due to its notably brighter, more vibrant watercolors.
2. Galatea (1880)
Moreau takes inspiration from Greek mythology (specifically, Homer’s Odyssey) for this painting of Galatea, a sea nymph lusted after by Polyphemus, a cyclops and son of Poseidon. In the myth, Polyphemus crushes Galatea’s lover to death. Galatea, in turn, creates a river out of her lover’s blood, allowing his spirit to live on.
In the painting, Polyphemus merely lurks, watching Galatea in her grotto. The Cyclops has classically Patrician features, and Moreau has seen fit to depict him with three eyes instead of one. He looms large over Galatea, who is seemingly unaware of his presence. She sits prettily in a grotto that is quintessential Moreau: dark, natural, jewel-toned, with overabundant vegetation (in this case, a delicate coral). Almost hidden amongst the coral are more sea nymphs, tiny and translucent.
Moreau submitted Galatea, along with a painting of Helen of Troy, to the Paris Salon in 1880. It would be the last year the artist would participate in the annual exhibition, though he would go on to teach for the Salon’s sponsoring institution, the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, and continued to paint until his death at the age of 72.
3. The Dream of an Inhabitant of Mongolia (1881)
This painting is one of many watercolor illustrations Moreau created for French writer Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables series. La Fontaine (who died nearly two centuries prior) was famous for collecting traditional Aesop and Asian fables and rewriting them in French verse. In total, the iconic fabulist published 12 books containing a total of 234 moral stories. The series is considered a masterpiece of classic French literature.
Moreau completed many of his illustrations for the celebrated series between exhibiting at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878 and the Paris Salon of 1880. The colorful, imaginative project must have been a breath of fresh air for the artist, who – though his work often contained a hint of fantasy – painted primarily historical and mythological scenes.
In The Dream of an Inhabitant of Mongolia, Moreau’s intricate, gold-and-jewel-toned style truly shines – as does his talent for rendering gorgeous, richly-patterned textiles. The painting is also significantly brighter and more playful than the artist’s typically darkened, gloomy scenes.
Moreau was purported to have painted a total of 64 pieces for La Fontaine’s Fables, but a large number were lost during the Nazi occupation of France. The surviving illustrations now belong to a private collection.
4. The Angels of Sodom (1890)
This breathtaking painting is remarkable in its stark departure from Moreau’s typically florid style. A raw and craggy natural landscape dominates the unornamented scene as two angels descend from heaven, cloaked in mist. Though each angel carries a sword, the painting has a distinctly quiet, peaceful quality.
The Angels of Sodom depicts a Biblical event described in Genesis 19. In the story, two angels (disguised as men) are sent by God to save Lot and his family from the city of Sodom’s impending destruction. That night, as the angels sleep under Lot’s roof, men from the city surround the house and demand that Lot allow them to rape his distinguished guests. Lot offers his virgin daughters in their stead; thankfully, neither offense occurs.
The rest of the story is equally disturbing. Lot’s family is saved from the destruction of the city, but his wife looks back upon the scene and is turned into a pillar of salt. Later, both of Lot’s daughters sleep with their father while he is in a drunken stupor, each becoming pregnant.
None of these chaotic events could be anticipated based on the still, hushed moment depicted in Moreau’s beautifully pared-down, minimalist painting. Though he often painted religious subjects, Moreau himself was not particularly devout, writing: “I believe neither in what I touch nor what I see. I only believe in what I do not see, and solely in what I feel.”
5. Jupiter and Semele (1895)
Moreau’s final masterpiece depicts the tragedy of Jupiter and Semele. According to Greek mythology, Semele was a human princess of Thebes who caught the eye of Jupiter (the Roman name for Zeus, king of the gods). Jupiter – a perpetual philanderer – seduced the young princess, who became pregnant.
Moreau was once rather unfortunately quoted as finding inspiration for Salome and other “bored, fantastic” women he painted from “the nature of women in real life who seek unhealthy emotions and are too stupid even to understand the horror in the most appalling situations.”
In this case, the situation indeed became horrific. When Jupiter’s jealous wife, the goddess Hera, found out about the affair, she set out to punish Semele. Hera convinced the mortal princess to ask Jupiter (who had promised to grant Semele any wish) to show her his true form.
Obliged to comply with her request, Jupiter revealed his magnificence – a constant storm of lightning bolts. Semele was killed immediately. Jupiter ripped the infant from her womb, sewing the baby into his own thigh until it was ready to be born. The infant would grow to be Dionysus, the god of wine and the only god born of a mortal woman.
Moreau’s painting depicts a bejeweled and glorious Jupiter staring intensely ahead as Semele, face frozen in terror, swoons in his lap. The bloody wound on her side suggests that Semele is dead in the painting; her unborn child has already been removed from her body.
The throne room is encrusted with gems and choked by foliage. Like most of Moreau’s paintings, the entire scene exudes a distinctly Eastern aesthetic. Among the multitude of onlookers (most featured with medieval-style halos, marking them as divine) are the god Pan, resplendent with flowers, and Hecate, goddess of witchcraft. Pan, with cloven feet and the horns of a goat, lounges directly in front of a giant eagle – a longstanding symbol of Zeus. Hecate can be found in the lower-left corner, with a crescent moon above her head.
The seven-by-four-foot painting was a stunning finish to Moreau’s 30-year career, painted only a few years prior to his death in 1898. Lauded as a visionary, the accomplished artist and sought-after professor maintained his humility. “No one could have less faith in the absolute and definitive importance of the work created by man,” he wrote, “because I believe that this world is nothing but a dream.”