The Moreau Museum
( Originally Published 1925 )
Out of the beaten track of sight-seers, and not noticed with particular favour by the guide-books, the museum founded by Gustave Moreau at 14 Rue de la Rochefoucauld in Paris, is known only to a comparatively few artists and amateurs. You seldom hear Americans speak of this rare collection, it is never written about in the magazines. In September, 1897, Moreau made a will leaving his house and its contents to the State. He died in 1898 (not in 1902, as Bryan's dictionary has it), and in 1902 President Loubet authorised the Minister of Public Instruction to accept this rich legacy in the name of the republic. The artist was not known to stranger countries; indeed he was little known to his fellow-countrymen. Huysmans had cried him up in a revolutionary article; but to be praised by Huysmans was not always a certificate of fame. That critic was more successful in attracting public attention to Degas and Rops, and Moreau, a born eclectic, though with-out any intention of carrying water on both shoulders, was regarded suspiciously by his associates at the Beaux-Arts, while the new men he praised, Courbet, Manet, Whistler, Monet, would hold no commerce with him. To this day opinion is divided as to his merits, he being called a pasticheur or else a great painter-poet. Huysmans saw straight into the heart of the enigma — Gustave Moreau is poet and painter, a highly endowed man who had the pictorial vision in an unusual degree; whose brush responded to the ardent brain that directed it, the skilled hand that manipulated it always responded, we say, except in the creation of life. His paintings are, strictly speaking, magnificent still-life. No vital current animates their airless, gorgeous, and sometimes cadaverous surfaces.
Like his friend Gustave Flaubert, with whom he had so much in common (at least on the Salammbô side of that writer), Moreau was born to affluence. His father was a government architect; he went early to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and also studied under Picot. In 1852 he had a Pieta in the Salon (he was born April 6,1826), and followed it the next season with a, Darius and a large canvas depicting an episode from the Song of Songs. The latter was purchased for the Dijon Museum. At the Universal Exhibition of 1855 he showed a monster work, The Athenians and the Minotaur. He withdrew from the public until 1864, when his (Edipus and the Sphinx set Paris talking. He exhibited until 1880 various canvases illustrative of his studies in classic literatures and received sundry medals. He was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1888, replacing Boulanger. He was decorated in 1875 with the Legion of Honour and made oficier in 1883. When a member of the Institute he had few friends, and as professor at the Beaux-Arts he disturbed the authorities by his warm praise of the Primitives. Altogether a career meagre in exciting incident, though singularly rich and significant on the intimate side
A first visit to the museum proved startling, We had seen and admired the fifteen water-colours at the Luxembourg, among them the famous Apparition, but for the enormous number of pictures, oil, water-colour, pastels, drawings, cartons, studies, we were unprepared. The bulky catalogue registers 1,132, pieces, and remember that while there are some unfinished canvases the amount of work executed it is true during half a century—is nevertheless a testimony to Moreau's muscular and nervous energy, poetic conception, and intensity of concentration. Even his unfinished pictures are carried to a state of elaboration that would madden many modern improvisers in colour. Apart from sheer execution, there is a multitude of visions that must have been struggled for as Jacob wrestled with the Angel, for Moreau's was not a facile mind. He brooded over his dreams, he saw them before he gave them shape. He was familiar with all the Asiatic mythologies, and for him the pantheon of Christian saints must have been bone of his bone. The Oriental fantasy, the Buddhistic ideas, the fluent knowledge of Persian, Indian, and Byzantine histories, customs, and costumes sets us to wondering if this artist wasn't too cultured ever to be spontaneous. He recalls Prester John and his composite faiths.
There was besides the profound artistic erudition another stumbling-block to simplicity of style and unity of conception. Moreau began by imitating both Delacroix and Ingres. Now, such a precedure is manifestly dangerous. Huysmans speaks with contempt of promiscuity in the admiration of art, You can't admire Manet and Bastien-Lepage — "le Grévin de cabaret, le Siraudin de banlieue," he names the gentle Bastien; nor ought you to admire Manet and Moreau, we may add. And Huysmans did precisely what he preached against. Moreau was a man of wide intellectual interests. Devoid of the creative energy that can eject an individual style at one jet, as a volcano casts. forth a rock, he attempted to aid nature by the process of an exquisite selection. His taste, was trained, his range wide — too wide, one is tempted to add; and thus by a conscious act of the will he originated an art that recalls an antique chryselephantine statue, a being rigid with precious gems, pasted with strange colours, some-thing with mineral eyes without the breath of life — contemporary life — yet charged with its author's magnetism, bearing a charmed existence, that might come from a cold, black magic; monstrous, withal possessing a strange feverish beauty, as Flaubert's Salammbô is beautiful, in a remote, exotic way.
However, it is not fair to deny Moreau human sympathies. There are many of his paintings and drawings, notably the latter, that show him as possessing heart. His handling of his medium though heavy is never timid, and at times is masterly. Delacroix inspired many of his landscape back-grounds, as Ingres gave him the proportions of his female figures. You continually encounter variations of Ingres, the sweet, serene line, the tapering feet and hands. Some critics have discerned the toe forms of Perugino; but such mechanical measurements strain our notion of eclecticism. Certainly Moreau studied Bellini, Mantegna, and Da Vinci without ever attaining the freedom and distinction of any of them. His colour, too, is often hard and cold, though not in the sumptuous surfaces of his fabrics; there Venetian splendour is apparent. He can be fiery and insipid, metallic and morbid; his Orientalism is at times transposed from the work of his old friend the painter Chasseriau into the key of a brilliant, if pompous rhetoric.
This herculean attempt at reassembling maw styles in a unique style that would best express a certain frozen symbolism was the amiable mania his life long of Moreau. He compelled the spirits to come to his bidding. The moment you cross the threshold of his house the spell begins to work. It is dissipated by the daylight of Paris, but while you are under the roof of the museum you can't escape it. Nor is it as with Rossetti, a mystic opiate, or with 'Mertz, a madman's delirious fancy. Moreau was a philosophic poet, and though he disclaimed being a "literary " painter, it is literature that is the mainspring of his elevated and decorative art. Open at random the cataloguefull of quotations from the painter's pen and you encounter such titles as Leda and the Swan, treated with poetic restraint; Jupiter and Semele, Tyrtaeus Singing During the Combat, St. Elizabeth and the Miracle of the Roses, Lucretia and Tarquin, Pasiphae, the Triumph of Alexander, Salome, Dante and Virgil, Bathsheba, Jason and the Golden FIeece. All literatures were ransacked for themes. This painter suffered from the nostalgia of the ideal. When a subject coincided with his technical expression the result approximates perfection. Consider the Salome, so marvellously paraphrased in prose by Huysmans. The aquarelle in the Luxembourg is more plastic, more jewelled than the oil; Moreau often failed in the working-out of his ideas. Yet, never in art has a hallucination been thus set before us with such uncompromising reality. The sombre, luxurious decor, the voluptuous silhouette of the dancing girl, the hieratic pose of the Tetrarch, even the aureoled head of John, are forgotten in the contemplation of Salome, who is become cataleptic at sight of the apparition. Arrested her attitude her flesh crisps with fear. Her face is contracted into a mask of death. The lascivious dance seems suspended in midair. To have painted so impossible a picture bears witness to the extraordinary quality of Moreau's complex art. Nor is the Salome his masterpiece. In the realm of the decorator he must be placed high. His genius is Byzantine. Jupiter and Semele, with its colossal and aerian architectures, its gigantic figure of the god, from whose august head emanate spokes of light, is Byzantine of a wild luxuriousness in pattern and fancy. Moreau excels in representing cataracts of nude women, ivory-toned of flesh, exquisite in proportion, set off by radiant jewels and wonder-breeding brocades, His skies are in via lent ignition, or else as soft as Lydian airs. What could be more grandiose than the Triumph of Alexander (No, 70 in the catalogue) ? Not John Martin or Piranesi excelled the Frenchman in bizarre architectural backgrounds. And the Chi-nieras, what a Baudelairian imagination! Baudelaire of the bitter heart! All luxury, all sin, all that is the shame and the glory of mankind is here, as in a tapestry dulled by the smoke of dreams; but as in his most sanguinary combats not a sound, not a motion comes from this canvas. When the slaves, lovely females, are thrown to the fish to fatten them for some Roman patrician's banquet, we admire the beauty of colour, the clear static style, the solidity of the architecture, but we are unmoved. If there is such a thing as disinterested art it is the claustral art of Moreau - which can be both perverse and majestic.
His versatility amazes. He did not always paint the same picture. The Christ Between Two Thieves is academic, yet attracts because the ex-pression of he converted thief is remarkable. The Three Magi and Moses Within Sight of the Promised Land do not give one the fullest sense of satisfaction, as do The Daughters of Thespus or The Rae of Europa; yet they suggest what might be termed a tragic sort of decoration. Moreau is a p inter who could have illustrated Marlowe's fatuous line, "Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia," and superbly; or, See where Christ's blood streams in the firmament." He is an exotic blossom on the stem of French art. He saw ivory, apes, and peacocks, purple, gold, and the heavens aflame with a mystic message. He never translated that message, for his was an art of silence; but the painter of The Maiden with the Head of Orpheus, o Salome, of Jason and Medea, of Jupiter and Semele, will never fail to win the admiration and homage of those art lovers who yearn for dreams vanished ages, who long to escape the common laces of the present. Gustave Moreau will be their poet-painter by predilection.
Once in the streets of prosaic Paris he is as as Rosetti or the Pre-Raphaelites (though
their superior as one who could make palpable his visions). In the Louvre — where the Salon Carré is little changed — Manet's Olympe, with her every-day seductiveness, resolves the phantasms of Moreau into thin air. Here is reality for you, familiar as it may be. It is wonderful how long it took French critics to discover that Manet was un peintre de race. He is very French in the French gallery where he now hangs. He shows the lineage of David, one of whose declamatory portraits with beady eyes hangs near by. He is simpler than David in his methods — Mr. C. S. Ricketts critically described David as possessing the mind of a policeman — and as a painter more greatly endowed. But Goya also peeps out from the Olympe. After seeing the Maja desnuda at the Prado you realise that Manet's trip to Madrid was not without important results. Between the noble lady who was the Duchess of Alba and the ignoble girl called Olympe there is only the difference between the respective handlings of Goya and Manet.