Gustave Moreau and the reinvention of history painting.

Author:Cooke, Peter
Position:Critical essay

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and histories of art associate Gustave Moreau with fin de siecle 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 "le 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 le 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 Francois Edouard Picot in preparation for competitions at the Ecole 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 tete d'expression, "this modern invention" that is the result of the academic system of facial expressions derived from Charles Le Brun'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-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's La Source (Fig. 1). (13) Many of Ingres's viewers considered this prestigious and influential single-figure 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 (15)


The Death of Nessus (Fig. 2), shown at the Salon of 1870, in the last year of the Second Empire, offers a good example of the narrative conventions governing the expectations of Moreau's public in mid-nineteenth-century France. Painted by Moreau's friend Elie Delaunay, an accomplished history painter who had won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1856, and acquired by the state for the Musee du Luxembourg, this lively picture presents a traditional mythological subject, notably treated by Guido Reni and Louis-Jean-Francois Lagrenee in two paintings conserved in the Musee du Louvre, Paris. (16) The tendency of viewers of the period to translate such paintings into simple narratives is exemplified by the following description of The Death of Nessus in Rene Menard's review:

The centaur Nessus has already crossed the river and is about to climb up the bank. Deianira, whom he is holding in his strong arms, is imploring Hercules, who is placed on the other shore. The hero's arrow has struck the abductor, whose hindquarters are collapsing, and who, still impelled by the movement of his rapid race, is beginning to stagger onto the shore. (17)


After describing the subject in purely narrative terms and then praising the truthfulness of the movement, the only pictorial aspect that Menard goes on to consider is the role of the landscape, which he criticizes as it diminishes "the dramatic interest of the subject." It is evident that, in keeping with the expectations of the period, in history painting Menard sought first and foremost a clear and dramatic interpretation of a narrative subject.

The narrative techniques employed by Delaunay are indeed economical and effective, the diegetic clarity being greatly aided by the very restricted number of figures, a restriction characteristic of a marked tendency in the Salon paintings of that period. Like many effective narrative images, The Death of Nessus contains an apparent formulation of causality. In this case the cause of Nessus's mortal wound, Hercules, armed with a bow and arrows, although placed in the background, is clearly visible, highlighted against a mass of dark foliage. But the viewer's eye is likely to be drawn first of all to the centaur and his struggling victim, subsequently following the diagonal of the arrow protruding from Nessus's chest along an invisible line leading back to Hercules' bow. The narrative is interpreted as a closely circumscribed dramatic action, in which the protagonists participate through readily legible gestures and facial expressions: the centaur's pain-stricken grimace and angular, clutching left arm contrasting with Deianira's elegant, conventional, open-handed gesture of distress and with the lost profile of her head, turned back toward her husband, Hercules. The dramatized action is captured as a frozen, but unstable, moment, extracted from an implied narrative sequence. Time is held in a tense suspension, just as the drops of water kicked up by the centaur's hooves are suspended in the air, while his tail flutters upward, suspended in the wind, and Hercules' bowstring is held taut, ready to be released. Temporality, although not explicitly developed, is inscribed in the painting, which contains, in mute, suggested potentiality, past, present, and future tenses. The frozen action of Hercules, aiming an arrow at Nessus, implies not only a present moment but also both past and future actions. Is this arrow the same as the one protruding from the centaur's torso, an arrow belonging to the immediate past, or is it a second arrow that is about to strike the centaur, an arrow belonging both to the present and to the immediate future? This ambiguity, or multiplicity of temporal functions, does not detract from the clarity of the central action.

Although, on one level, the action in Delaunay's Nessus is immediately intelligible, the narrative potential of the image can be fulfilled only through the active collaboration of the spectator's imagination, which has to reconstruct the narrative sequence in order for the frozen scene to be reactivated. On the simplest level, moving slightly forward in the implied temporal sequence, the viewer may imagine the stricken Nessus collapsing on the riverbank and releasing Deianira from his grasp, as Hercules lowers his bow. Finally, it is evident that narrative history painting is characterized by textual dependence: it presupposes an educated spectator who must know, at least in outline, the text that it interprets (in this case, Ovid's Metamorphoses 9.98-134), in order to identify the figures and to read more than anecdotal meaning into the dramatic scene. A further dimension of tragic drama is added to the mental world that the painting evokes by the knowledge that, as an act of revenge, the dying Nessus will persuade Deianira to take his blood-stained cloak, polluted by the terrible poison from the arrow, as a love charm with which she may secure Hercules' attachment to her, and that this will eventually lead to Hercules' excruciating apotheosis. The painting's title thus fulfills the crucial role of verbal bridge between the absent source text, which the viewer is invited to retrieve from his memory or look up in his library, and the muta poesis of the painting that draws its subject from it. (18)

Like Delaunay's Nessus, history painting in mid-nineteenth-century France generally follows a simple mise-en-scene that is far removed from the narrative complexity that had been developed in the seventeenth century by the supposed paragon of French academic painting, Nicolas Poussin. The latter had sought to condense in a single pictorial-temporal space the causes of the represented event and the consequences that ensue from it, together with their moral implications, through the system of peripeteia. In contrast...

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