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Portrait of Gustave Moreau, Degas, 1867

Gustave Moreau: 1826 - 1898

Gustave Moreau was born in Paris, the son of wealthy parents. There he lived the life of a recluse, aware nevertheless of what went on around him. He also made several journeys abroad: from 1858 until 1860 to Italy, where he met Pierre Puvis de Chavannes in Rome, and in 1865 to Holland, where he studied Rembrandt.

Moreau's usual mediums were oil and watercolour; his subject matter was invariably Biblical or mythological. His style was influenced by Eugene Delacroix, and later by Theodore Chasseriau and perhaps by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Its outstanding elements are a graceful languor (Moreau's "beautiful inertia"), an opulence of detail, and a flowing arabesque line. Moreau mistrusted reason and the observation of the eye, maintaining: "Only my inward feelings seem to me eternal and incontestably certain."

Perhaps because he was by nature a perfectionist, much of his work was left unfinished. In it there is often a contradiction between the strength of the linear pattern and the heavy accumulation of detail, which increased as his style developed. In contrast, many of his color sketches are very freely handled, and when in the 1870's he experimented with modeling in wax and clay, he re-created the mythological and Biblical characters of his paintings in an animated style.

Moreau's color is rich and jewel-like. His actual obsession with jewels and fantastic detail is the closest parallel in painting to the imagery of the Symbolist poets of his time. This equally impressed the symbolist writer and critic J. K. Huysmans, who was partly responsible for the contemporary appreciation of Moreau. Exhibited occasionally at the Paris Salon, Moreau's work appealed strongly to the "decedents" among the literary Symbolists. He was himself horrified at their private lives and had no wish to associate with them.

In the 20th century his work was later of considerable interest to the Surrealists, particularly to Max Ernst and Andre Breton. He was also an influential teacher, from 1892 until the year of his death, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he had among his pupils Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, and Matisse's friend Albert Marquet. Moreau died on April 18, 1898, leaving his collection of his own works to the state. His house in Paris is now a museum, of which Rouault was the first curator.

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