Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 377-378
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Gustave Moreau embodies one of the most intriguing French visual artists of the nineteenth century, the creator of a truly unusual artistry. His deeply imaginative and exorbitantly detailed paintings continue to provoke debate among critics, as he is both applauded as a visionary and condemned as an eccentric. Moreau exhibited his work from the early 1850 s, but his first real impact began with the presentation at the national Salon in 1864 of his Œdipe et le sphinx, and although he presented his work at various Salons and Expositions universelles throughout the 1870 s, after 1880 he never again showed his work in the official exhibition circuit. Despite his withdrawal from the public art scene, Moreau was named a member of l'Institut in 1889, and in 1892, at the age of 65, he became a professor at l'Ecole des beaux-arts, where his most distinguished student was Henri Matisse.
Moreau's work reveals the inherent duality of his aesthetic perspective, as it is traditional in content and innovative in form. This dialectic underlies his mixed critical reception, sparked by Moreau's choice to depict classical subjects but in a manner so curious as to confound the more academic of his critics whom he might have pleased by the choice of his classical referential material. Conversely, in an unfortunate irony, those more avant-garde critics who approved of his unpre-cedented style were disappointed by Moreau's depiction of traditionally academic subjects. Further, one of the most popular reproaches against Moreau is that his imaginative vision is fundamentally more ideological than artistic, more discursive than pictorial, and that in his work the privileged role granted to the poet necessarily detracts from the autonomy of the painter.
It is well known that the relationship of Moreau to the realm of letters poses an interesting enigma, for on the one hand the painter was obviously aware of the poetic nature of many of his works. Yet he also spoke out ardently against the widespread opinion that his work was that of a literary painter, a claim he considered as patently insulting. Moreau had a conflicted view of the dynamics of word and image, of the presence of a textual subject and the visual illustration of that motif, for he believed, first, that a painting should never be explained, that the visual image is integral, complete in itself, and that any attempt to explicate its meaning can only lessen its artistic appeal, diffuse its emotive impact, and debase its internal harmony. Yet he was also a prolific writer, and in spite of his claim that explanation is the enemy of art, Moreau himself practiced a good deal of explanation, both of his work and of the work of other artists, much of which he copied into notebooks that he kept from 1870 until his death in 1898. Further, Moreau lived for many years with his mother who had lost her hearing, and he communicated with her through written messages, many of which present detailed analyses of his paintings. Moreau carefully conserved these notebooks and messages, and it is not unimaginable that he may have [End Page 377] considered their eventual publication, particularly given his meticulous project to conserve his own house as a posthumous museum of his art.
The recent publication of Ecrits sur l'art par Gustave Moreau, edited and annotated by Peter Cooke and with a preface by Geneviève Lacambre (Director of the Moreau museum in Paris), divides the painter's writings into two volumes, the first "sur ses œuvres et sur lui-même," and the second on "théorie et critique d'art." In her preface, Lacambre details the frustrating history surrounding Moreau's writings: although his will does not contain any statement limiting their publication, the executor of his estate, Henri Rupp, rendered the process particularly difficult, as he was extremely protective of the...