Gustave Moreau, the painter of all those Salome pictures, a Pre-Raphaelite? At first glance the idea seems ridiculous, and yet although he obviously never shared the early Brotherhood's combination of hard-edge realism with typological symbolism, he does have several things in common with its members, the most important of which being his belief that to create great art one had to return to painting before Raphael:

I return to the primitive art produced at the end of the Middle Ages, which is so different from that of the real Renaissance, for the simple reason that this primitive art is very much closer to the modern mind than the later decorative, sensuous art. Look at the heads of the primitive painters, Giotto, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi and even Botticelli, who was a sensuous painter, and you will realize how their expressions and the characteristics of the head are more consonant with the modern spirit than the types created by Raphael, Correggio and Michelangelo. What gravity, what sadness, what mystery in these heads, even taken directly from life (and perhaps because of that)! Their ideal is not only plastic, it owes nothing to antiquity, nothing to paganism (apart from the great laws of modelling and planes), theirs is an intense life, the innermost life of a man with all his passions, his universality wholly of this earth yet wholly ideal and often divine, with a meditativeness beyond the physical expression. . . . Look at this art, steeped and recast in human sources, renewing its strength by questioning the sad, silent soul and its mysteries, the soul, that is the hyphen between man and God. This rediscovered virginity is indeed very beautiful and very holy! [Quoted by Paladilhe, p. 29]

Furthermore, as Jean Paladilhe points out, the artist's belief in the "principle of 'necessary richness'" derives in part from Van Eyck, and "His ambition and the goal he aimed at, and believed he had reached, was to forge a link with Italian and Flemish art of the finest periods while adding his own very French contribution" (29). Change "French" to "English" and one has a statement that sounds very much those by Hunt and the PRB.

Yet another point of convergence appears in Moreau's interest in a fundamentally literary painting. Writing in a time when abstract, subjectless art had come to dominate, Paladilhe explains

The public expects to experience an impression from a work of art; it does not like being made to think and Moreau's aim was to stimulate thought. This led to the misunderstanding from which his work suffered. His art primarily expresses an idea, a feeling or an aspiration. It is the source of its strange beauty which would be diminished if the observer were satisfied with its visual qualities alone, not allowing it to communicate those mysterious and sublime things that words cannot formulate. 'It is the language of God,' he wrote. 'One day the eloquence of this silent art will be appreciated. I have lavished all my care and endeavour on this eloquence, whose character, nature and spiritual power have never been satisfactorily defined. The incantation of thought through line, arabesque and technique: this is my aim.' His chosen subject was only the excuse for expressing an idea, a problem or a moral attitude. And gradually his imagination led him into the highest spheres of thought, into those regions where human reason becomes irrelevant. . . . When one realizes how banal allegory had become in academic art, one cannot fail to admire the nobility and beauty of his conception. [32]

True, Moreau, who at one point in his career became deeply interested in Theosophy, also claimed that he was "dominated by one thing, an irresistible, burning attraction towards the abstract. The expression of human feelings and the passions of man certainly interest me deeply, but I am less concerned with expressing the motions of the soul and mind than to render visible, so to speak, the inner flashes of intuition which have something divine in their apparent insignificance and reveal magic, even divine horizons, when they are transposed into the marvellous effects of pure plastic art" (32). At this point he might seem to diverge sharply from the Pre-Raphaelites, and yet his concern with human emotions, mood, and the often tragic resuts of erotic desire, like his narrow vertical compositions, has a great deal in common with Burne-Jones.


Paladilhe, Jean, and José Pierre. Gustave Moreau. Trans. Bettina Wadia. New York: Praeger, 1972.

[This volume actually contains two separate studies, the first Paladilhe's "Gustave Moreau: His Life and Work" (pp. 1-72); the second Pierre's "Gustave Moreau through the eyes of succeeding generations" (pp. 73-171). The two authors do not always agree!

Aesthetes & Decadents paintings Gustave Moreau

Last modified 11 April 2008