Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting

By Cooke, Peter | The Art Bulletin, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting


Cooke, Peter, The Art Bulletin


Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and histories of art associate Gustave Moreau with fin de siècle Symbolism or Decadence. While this categorization has undoubtedly helped to save Moreau's oeuvre from the oblivion in which despised nineteenth-century "academic" art lay for so long, it has also distorted our understanding of his achievement. Art historians are now beginning to recognize an essential fact that was self-evident to Moreau himself, as well as to his contemporaries: the author of Oedipus and the Sphinx and Salome was, above all, a history painter.1 Indeed, not only did Moreau proudly describe himself as "peintre d'histoire" on his visiting cards but also, to the end of his life, both as a practitioner and as a teacher, he maintained an unshakable loyalty to the ideals traditionally associated with the genre that he preferred to call "Ie grand art."2 Yet, however firmly he clung to tradition in his aesthetic ideals, this does not mean that he accepted the outworn conventions of academic history painting.3 According to his close friend Henri Rupp, as early as 1852 Moreau expressed the ambition to "create an epic art that is not academic," in other words, to create a nonacademic kind of grand-manner history painting.4 At a time of crisis, when Ie grand art was threatened from without by the rise of rival genres and from within by both the loss of confidence in the academic tradition and the insidious blending of genres practiced by academically trained painters, Moreau set out to reinvent serious history painting.5 It is during Moreau's first mature period, beginning in 1860, immediately after his formative Italian sojourn, and ending with the Salon of 1869, that he developed the aesthetic means designed to fulfill this ambition.6

History painting is a narrative genre that traditionally involves the dramatic staging of figures engaged in significant actions.7 In academic training and practice, the theatrical paradigm, according to which "a picture should be considered as a stage on which each figure plays its role," remained valid until the end of the nineteenth century.8 As executed, pictorial theatricality was conceived above all in terms of facial expression and gesture.9 Although Gustave Moreau had undergone academic training in the studio of François Edouard Picot in preparation for competitions at the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, in his maturity he expressed contempt for theatricality: "The theater and drama in the plastic [or pictorial] arts: an idiotic and childish mixture," he wrote, with uncompromising vehemence.10 Rejecting "the actor's grimace" and "the overtheatrical manifestation of feelings," Moreau denounced the practice of the tête d'expression, "this modern invention" that is the result of the academic system of facial expressions derived from Charles Le Bran's codification of the "passions."11 For, in his eyes, theatricality signified "the annihilation of pictorial form."12 In this, Moreau was perpetuating an antitheatrical reaction that had begun, in the second half of the eighteenth century, with the aesthetic theories of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, followed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, had informed Jacques-Louis David's The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) and Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), and had led, in Moreau's own time, to such works of impassive, immobile beauty as Jean-AugusteDominique Ingres's La Source (Fig. I).13 Many of Ingres's viewers considered this prestigious and influential singlefigure painting an exemplary work of high art, an expression of the purest and most perfect pictorial beauty. Yet it represents a highly problematic development in relation to history painting as it effectively abolishes narrative and reduces the status of the (quasi-mythological) subject to that of a mere pretext for the depiction of the idealized female body.14 Gustave Moreau, on the other hand, set himself the task of reconciling immobile, antitheatrical beauty with narrative history painting, forging a paradoxical manner that fascinated and disconcerted his contemporaries.

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