8 Things You Should Know About Gustave Moreau

Here’s everything you need to know about Gustave Moreau, the Father of Symbolism.

Oct 25, 2023By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

gustave moreau thing you should know


The famous French artist Gustave Moreau was a legend of Symbolist art. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Moreau hardly shared the excitement over new technological and social developments of nineteenth-century Europe. He believed that the truth hid within the realm of dreams and fantasies, inhabited by heroes and monsters. Read on to learn more about the mysterious artist.


1. Gustave Moreau’s Family

moreau portrait painting
Self-Portrait by Gustave Moreau, 1872-75, via Wikimedia Commons


Gustave Moreau was born in 1826 into an affluent family. His poor health did not allow for much physical activity, so under the influence of his parents, he started to draw from an early age. Moreau’s parents encouraged his artistic aspirations and his father even helped him to secure a job as a copyist in the Louvre. One of his teachers was the legendary Romanticist Theodore Chasseriau, known for his mythological scenes and fantasy compositions loosely inspired by Middle Eastern culture.


Chasseriau’s work left an enormous impact on Moreau’s style. Another source of inspiration came from Italy, where the artist spent several years studying the art of antiquity and the Old Masters. Throughout his life, the evidence of classical training would be evident, but year after year, Moreau would develop his own unique and complex style.


2. Gustave Moreau Defined the Aesthetic of Symbolism in Art

moreau thespius painting
Daughters of Thespius by Gustave Moreau, 1853, via Gustave Moreau Museum, Paris


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Contrary to his contemporaneous culture’s sharp focus on science and reason, Gustave Moreau insisted that the only real thing that mattered was emotion. In his notes, he stated that while his brain could be fooled, his innermost feelings appeared eternal and incontestably certain. Neither the harsh tangibility of Realist painting nor the delicate play of light of Impressionism was of interest to him.


The establishment of Symbolism in art was the direct consequence of the emergence of the Symbolist style in literature. Started by Charles Baudelaire, the literary movement of Symbolism similarly ignored reality in favor of the pure aestheticism of dreams and imaginary scenes. Symbolist novels rarely have any distinctive or exciting plot since the authors pay more attention to elaborate descriptions and philosophical musings.


In this context, Gustave Moreau’s art fits perfectly into the framework of literary Symbolism. Full of intricate details, it is highly descriptive yet it lacks dynamism and action. The events unfolding in Moreau’s paintings are frozen. The artist was concerned with pure beauty and feeling. After Moreau, Symbolism in art developed further. It became popular in France, Belgium, Germany, and Russia.


3. Gustave Moreau’s Painting Once Became a Character of a Decadent Novel

gustave moreau apparition painting
L’Apparition by Gustave Moreau, 1876, via Musee D’ Orsay


The image of a Jewish princess Salomé was particularly important for the late nineteenth-century culture and art. Salomé was the Old Testament character and the stepdaughter of King Herod, who tried to seduce John the Baptist. After the attempt proved unsuccessful, enraged Salomé offered Herod a deal—she would dance for him in exchange for one wish fulfilled. Overwhelmed with lust, Herod agreed, and Salomé asked him to bring her the severed head of John the Baptist on a plate.


The revival of Salomé’s story happened in the nineteenth century, as Europe developed its ties with the Middle East and Orientalism in art and design came into fashion. Salomé became the symbol of untamed and dangerous female sexuality, which inevitably led to demise and destruction. Gustave Moreau’s version of the painting quickly became famous.


In 1884, a Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans published the novel A rebours (Against Nature), in which the main character spent hours contemplating the painting by Moreau. Under his gaze, the work came alive and provided insight into the darkest corners of the character’s mind. For him, Salomé is the symbolic deity of indestructible lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, of accursed Beauty, distinguished from all others by the catalepsy which stiffens her flesh and hardens her muscles; the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, baneful, like the Helen of antiquity, fatal to all who approach her, all who behold her, all whom she touches.


4. The Main Artistic Instrument of Gustave Moreau Was His Inner Vision

moreau jupiter painting
Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau, 1894-95, via Gustave Moreau Museum, Paris


For Moreau, nature was an artist’s dictionary, providing them with elements necessary to construct their own reality inside an artwork. He rejected Realist art, claiming that a completely realistic work was solely a piece of information and not an artistic creation.


Crucial for Gustave Moreau was the concept of inner vision, not a clairvoyant trick, but an instrument unique for every artist, from which the one-of-a-kind styles emerged. Later in his life, Moreau would teach this to his students, many of whom would turn into the greatest avant-garde artists of the twentieth century.


Moreau paid specific attention to color and tone, believing they were much more than tools for reflecting recognizable concepts. An artist, according to Moreau, had to think about color, invent it, and reflect on it. The color was Moreau’s instrument to give depth to his images and make the figures living, breathing, and reflecting on their existence.


5. Moreau’s Art Was Elitist and Accessible to a Limited Number of People

gustave moreau oedipus painting
Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau, 1864, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Unlike many other artists, Moreau never had to make money off his work. This allowed him to focus on his own visions and experiment without fear that his experiments would not sell. Immersed in his illusions, Moreau created art for the art’s sake, but nonetheless, these ethereal works seemingly detached from reality, bore traces of social and political structures of his time.


Moreau’s art was exclusive by its definition since it relied on mythological sources accessible only to the higher classes of French society. To truly appreciate every detail, every aspect, and every reference hidden in Moreau’s paintings, one had to possess an above-average level of education. Today, a certain knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology became so widespread due to its integration into Western popular culture. Yet, in Moreau’s time, there were no cartoons or children’s books on the matter. Greek mythology was part of the curriculum studied through ancient texts, with no regard to how accessible or engaging the original source was.


Still, despite elitist connotations, Moreau’s work quite soon fell out of fashion after his death. With the gradual development of non-representational art, the intricate patterns of Moreau’s Symbolism became outdated and conceptually simple until the revival of interest in his art during the latter part of the twentieth century.


6. Gustave Moreau Was Hardly Interested in the Real World

moreau triumph painting
The Triumph of Alexander the Great by Gustave Moreau, c.1873-90, via Wikimedia Commons


Completely immersed in his art, Moreau was indifferent to social events and gatherings. As his artistic fame developed, he almost completely withdrew from exhibiting his works publicly. Only a limited number of close friends were allowed into his home, but even for them, the artist’s workshop was off-limits. His reclusive character added an extra layer of mystery to his works: it was as if Moreau departed the world of the living to live within the realm of mythological creatures and dreamy castles. Moreau never married and never had children, and the information about his romantic affairs is scarce and questionable. After he died in 1898, Moreau left his house and more than twelve hundred paintings and drawings to the French Republic.


7. He Taught Many Famous Artists

gustave matisse moreau painting
The Study of Gustave Moreau by Henri Matisse, 1895, via Wikimedia


Moreau’s efforts as a teacher are often overlooked, mostly because the styles of his most famous students, like Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault, differed drastically from that of Moreau in both visual and conceptual sense. He was loved and respected by his students. Even at the end of his life, Matisse spoke about Moreau with great admiration and respect while rarely mentioning his art.


Matisse spent five years studying under Moreau’s guidance. The great Fauvist artist remembered that, unlike many of his other art teachers, Moreau was still capable of getting excited and emotional over art, despite his long career as a painter. Moreau’s goal was not to teach his students to paint just like he did. He wanted to cultivate their natural talents and personal inclinations.


Moreau frequently took his students to the Louvre to study the works of the Old Masters and copy their works. This practice was far from original, yet Moreau had a different approach. Instead of asking his pupils to simply copy the work mechanically, he insisted on paying attention to how various elements of the composition worked and what made them so special.


8. Gustave Moreau’s House is Now A Museum

musee moreau photo
The artist’s house, via Gustave Moreau Museum, Paris


Seeing Gustave Moreau’s work in person is not an easy thing to do. Given the reclusive character of the artist, very few of his works made their way out of his studio. A small number of works can be found in public and private collections in France, Germany, and the USA, but the real legacy of the artist remains in a relatively small museum bearing his own name.


The National Museum of Gustave Moreau is still located in the same house where the artist spent his life. However, it remains an underrated gem among other Parisian museums that are usually crowded with tourists. Despite its relative obscurity, Gustave Moreau’s art left a lasting impact on generations of artists. He wasn’t just an inspiration to other Symbolists—his immersion into the imaginary and the subconscious helped establish the Surrealist movement. As an artist, Moreau never tried to justify or defend his approach since his main goal was to create works that matched his inner feeling.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.