The Many Faces of Gustave Moreau

The 19th-century French painter infused his diverse works with exoticism and poetic imagination

A prodigious technician with an active and often fervid imagination, French artist Gustave Moreau produced thousands of works — paintings, drawings, watercolors, sketches — during the course of his 50-year career, roughly from the mid-19th century to its end. His elaborate compositions and glowing colors lent a dreamlike quality to the world of epic tales he portrayed in his early paintings — a world inhabited by figures and settings taken from the Bible, and from Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Oriental mythology. "I have never looked for dream in reality or reality in dream," he wrote. "I have allowed my imagination free play, and I have not been led astray by it." His later paintings — with their loose, expressive brushwork and thick impasto — evoke emotional response through the use of color, line and form and are considered by some to be heralds of Abstract Expressionism.

A self-described "assembler of dreams," Moreau was greatly admired by Proust. Later, his strange and dramatic work caught the attention of André Breton, the high-priest theoretician of Surrealism. A generation of Symbolist painters and writers were also influenced by his art, as were the radical group of artists known as the Fauves. Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse both studied with Moreau and praised him for setting them free. "He didn't set his pupils on the right road," Matisse said. "He took them off it. He made them uneasy.... He didn't show us how to paint; he roused our imagination."

Now a new show — "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream" — on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 22, brings the work of this long out-of-fashion artist, who was little known in the United States, back into the spotlight. Organized jointly by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Metropolitan, the show includes many works from the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris.

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