The Spring 2008 issue of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture contains a fascinating article by Scott C. Allan titled Interrogating Gustave Moreau’s Sphinx: Myth as Artistic Metaphor in the 1864 Salon. Born April 6, 1826, Gustave Moreau long enjoyed the status of a pioneering Symbolist artist but more recently, as Allan puts it, “has been firmly situated in his generational context as an aspiring history painter who came of age in the Salons of the Second Empire (1851–1870).” I’m not sure I agree entirely, but I found his reading of Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx (above, from 1864) interesting in showing a different side of Moreau. Pointing towards Moreau’s self-identification in correspondence, etc., as “a harried defender of idealist values,” Allan sees Moreau’s depiction of the Sphinx as “read[able] not only as the materialist enemy which the artist was set on confronting and defeating (the dominant understanding of his composition), but also as a chimerical poetic and artistic ideal to which, for better or worse, he was fatally attached.” In other words, the Symbolist muse so commonly linked with Moreau was actually his enemy, both the antithesis of his idealism and a temptation he couldn’t resist.
Extending Allan’s theory, we can see Moreau’s Orpheus (above, from 1865) as a depiction of the same siren song of materialist decadence. Moreau was a deeply, if unconventionally spiritual man, as shown by especial affection for his student, Georges Rouault, himself a deeply religious painter albeit in a modern idiom. Moreau chose Rouault to look after his home after his death and oversee its transition to a museum. It’s interesting how closely Oedipus and the Sphinx and Orpheus follow the same composition. In both, a standing figure gazes into the eyes of a magical creature, unable to look away, giving credence to Allan’s idea of Moreau’s conflicted relationship to his proto-Symbolist works.
I’d like to believe that Moreau found peace with his muse in later years, as shown in Hesiod and the Muse (above, 1891). No longer are the two figures locking stares, literally facing off against one another. Instead, the muse stands behind Hesiod, pointing the way for him instead of standing in his way. Allan’s article does a great job in showing a different facet of Moreau. I admit that I like to cling to the idea of Moreau as the great French father of Symbolism, mainly because of my affection for that brand of painting, so full of mystery and the fantastic. Knowing now that Moreau’s original impulse was to be a history painter, painting straightforward scenes of history and mythology to help ward off what he saw as the decadent path French painting was taking, makes the spiritual component of his art all the more alluring—something even the artist himself couldn’t resist.