The Sublime Matisse Loved Ridiculous Gustave Moreau

About the 19th-century French painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), whose work is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two things are likely to be known even by people who are unfamiliar with the artist’s pictures. One is that he was the teacher of Henri Matisse and certain other Fauvist painters. The other is that two of his paintings are said to have inspired Oscar Wilde to write–in French, by the way–his most scandalous play, Salome . Connoisseurs of the Symbolist movement in 19th-century French literature will also recall the once-famous passage in J.-K. Huysmans’ novel, À rebours (1884), in which Moreau’s two Salome paintings–both of which are in the Met show–are celebrated as models of what came to be called l’esprit décadent .

Be advised, however, that it is this esprit décadent rather than the Matisse connection that defines the spirit of Moreau’s art. For as Wilde himself said in comparing his Salome with his better-known comic works for the English stage: “Personally I like comedy to be intensely modern, and like my tragedy to walk in purple and to be remote.” Moreau’s art is, in this sense, very purple indeed–which is to say, excessively elaborate, precious, morbid and ornamental–and about as remote from the modernity of Matisse as the mind can imagine.

Still, I have to confess to a certain curiosity about Moreau. Years ago, when I first visited the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris, I scarcely knew what to make of what I saw there. Could this lugubrious artificer, who seemed to bring to the art of painting the sensibility of a second-rate jewelry designer, really have been an important influence on Matisse? Yet apparently he was, and on Rouault and Marquet, too. It all seemed a great conundrum to me at the time. What didn’t surprise me was that the Surrealists had pleaded Moreau’s cause. For they, too, specialized in the kind of sexual morbidity that is one of Moreau’s principal themes. André Breton went so far as to claim that his discovery of the Musée Gustave Moreau at the age of 16 had “influenced forever my idea of love”–itself a fairly gruesome thought.

For what is Moreau’s “idea of love” in these paintings but a desiccated version of the Romantic ideal of the femme fatale refurbished with an exotic wardrobe and the stilted gestures of 19th-century melodrama? “This woman, who, almost without changing her expression,” wrote Breton, “becomes successively Salome, Helen of Troy, Delilah, the Chimera, Semele, compels recognition as their composite incarnation.” Breton was certainly right about the unchanging expression in the faces of Moreau’s heroines, who do indeed have all the charm of a “composite incarnation,” but the male figures in his paintings are afflicted with similar disabilities–foremost among them, an effeminacy that at times makes the task of distinguishing the males from the females an almost futile enterprise. Even in a painting like Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra (1869-76), the only persuasively virile figure is that of the serpentine monster.

What I could not have understood when I first visited the Musée Gustave Moreau with Matisse on my mind is that, unlike Matisse, Moreau had all his life been in thrall to an intense and implacable hostility to the modern world. “I believe only in what I do not see and solely in what I feel,” he said, and what he was capable of feeling about life as well as art was a kind of affective impotence. Anything suggestive of assertive manliness was programmatically rejected in favor of a mise en scène at once so bloodless and so fussy, so bereft of vitality and so concentrated on the accretion of minuscule detail and melodramatic effects, that it openly declares its indifference to the normal ranges of emotion to be expected in an art so ambitiously conceived.

What makes the artistic result so odd–and finally so oppressive–is that Moreau insists upon attaching this finical and anemic esthetic attitude to some of the most heroic and violent episodes to be found in the literature of the Bible and of classical antiquity. He seems to have taken a perverse pleasure in reducing this legacy of heroic deeds and emblematic fable to the level of his own emotional anomie. And it wasn’t as if he lacked the talent to do otherwise.

By far the most interesting aspect of the current exhibition at the Met, which is called Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream , is the disjunction we observe between the vitality of the artist’s drawings and watercolor studies and the laborious, bejeweled sterility of the major paintings. This disjunction between talent, on the one hand, and the bizarre, failed sensibility that governs it, on the other hand, is almost poignant at times, but more often simply maddening.

The irony is, of course, that Moreau’s programmatic attempt to escape the deprivations of the modern world resulted, in the end, in a period style that marks him forever as a conspicuous casualty of the era he was so intent upon repudiating. He certainly doesn’t belong to the epic past he dreamed of reincarnating in his art. Degas’ wicked judgment of Moreau–”He would have us believe that the gods wear watch chains”–sums up everything that was foolish and self-deceived in his most ambitious paintings.

Whether it was advisable to devote an exhibition of nearly 175 works to such a failed talent is a matter about which opinions will inevitably differ. But for connoisseurs of artistic failure, Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream remains on view at the Met through Aug. 22.