Gustave Moreau (1826 –1898) was the first French artist who can rightly be called a Symbolist. Indeed, the evolution of his art up until 1880 was a major force in the creation of Symbolism in painting. Early influences were Delacroix and his mentor Chassériau, and it was not until after 1869 during his reclusive studio existence, that his style evolved into producing the complex and often immensely detailed mythological scenes in dramatic rich oils that he is best known for now.
He influenced artists and writers in innumerable ways, yet the sources and meanings of many of his creations remains a mystery. He sold and exhibited very little during his lifetime, and it was only after his death when his work was bequeathed to the French state that the public was presented with an astonishing revelation of the obsessions and preoccupations of an essentially solitary artist.
“I am dominated by one thing, an irresistible, burning attraction towards the abstract. The expression of human feelings and the passions of man certainly interest me deeply, but I am less concerned with expressing the motions of the soul and mind than to render visible, so to speak, the inner flashes of intuition which have something divine in their apparent insignificance and reveal magic, even divine horizons, when they are transposed into the marvellous effects of pure plastic art.” (Gustave Moreau)
Echoes of Moreau’s taste for Greek myth and rich detailing surface in the works of Belgian Symbolists such as Fernand Khnopff and Jean Delville. He became an inspired teacher to Rouault, Matisse and Marquet and exerted a profound influence on Symbolist poets such as Mallarmé and Laforgue and novelists such as Proust and J-K Huysmans, who in A Rebours (1884), writes of Moreau:
“His sad and scholarly works breathed a strange magic, an incantatory charm which stirred you to the depths of your being… so that you were left amazed and pensive, disconcerted by this art which crossed the frontiers of painting to borrow from the writer’s art its most subtly evocative suggestions, from the enameller’s art its most wonderfully brilliant effects, from the lapidary’s and etcher’s art its most exquisitely delicate touches.”