The Elements by Albert Joseph Moore, ARWS 1841-1893. 1866. Gouache on paper, 5 X 8 ⅝ inches (12.7 X 22.5 cm). Private collection. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The art of Albert Moore evolved through several stages before reaching the mature style for which he is best known. In 1862-63 Moore had visited Rome where he discovered ancient classical art, while in 1865 the Elgin Marbles, which had undergone restoration, were reinstalled in the Elgin Room at the British Museum. Classical sculpture, as well as classical painting and decorative arts, were to exert a major influence on Moore, and he began to eliminate narrative elements from his art, concentrating on decorative arrangements of figures in classical drapery. As Robyn Asleson has noted in After the Pre-Raphaelites,
By 1866, in his gouache drawing The Elements, Moore had entirely excised this narrative dimension. The four female figures are now physically interchangeable and psychologically remote. Blank-faced, each bears a simple emblem symbolic of her elemental nature: a branch for earth, a Japanese fan for wind, a flaming pot for fire and a flowing jug for water. By stripping down the symbolism and eradicating most of the picture's extra-aesthetic significance, Moore forces the viewer to concentrate on purely visual qualities, such as the flow of drapery and the arrangement of colour. The 'subject' of the picture has already become its least compelling feature. 
By 1865 Moore had moved fully towards his mature style, concerned only with the colour relationships and decorative patterns that were to occupy him for the rest of his life. Moore’s The Marble Seat, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, was without any narrative content and was purely a harmony of tone and colour. James Whistler was greatly impressed by this painting when he saw it at the exhibition and immediately struck up a friendship with Moore that was to last until Moore's death in 1893. Between 1865 and 1870, the period of their greatest intimacy, Moore was by far the most significant artistic influence on Whistler and vice-versa. While Moore introduced Whistler to the art of classical Greece, Whistler introduced Moore to Japanese art. These dual influences were essential for the development of Moore's mature manner. As Muther has pointed out in his The History of Modern Painting, Moore "was influenced indeed by the sculptures of the Parthenon, but the Japanese have also penetrated his spirit. From the Greeks he learnt the combination of noble lines, the charm of dignity and quietude, while the Japanese gave him the feelings for harmonies of colour, for soft, delicate blended tones. By a capricious union of both these elements he formed his refined and exquisite style" (353).
The Elements, which was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1866, no. 669, shows how quickly Moore had assimilated both these influences. The figures with their classical Grecian faces, their poses and draperies, are clearly influenced by classical Greek sculpture. Moore was also influenced by Roman wall paintings, particularly the frescoes at Pompeii, in the surface qualities of this gouache and in its two dimensionality. In this work Moore has already begun to move away from the hot colour schemes of his early religious and classical paintings towards a lighter, cooler palette. He was already demonstrating his theory of colour harmonies, which he would utilize throughout the rest of his career. His paintings generally involve two shades of a dominant colour, which in the case of The Elements are light and dark blue, plus one or sometimes two gradations of a near-complementary colour, in this case salmon pink. These three or four hues were then arranged into a harmonious pattern across the surface of the composition. The allegorical figures appear to be sitting on a bench, perhaps suggested by Pompeian prototypes, but which also resembles much of the Anglo-Japanese Aesthetic Movement furniture designed by progressive architects like E. W. Godwin. Moore may have been aware of such designs through his friendship with the architect William Eden Nesfield.
About 1866, the year of this painting, Moore and Whistler began to use devices as signatures. Moore used a Greek anthemion, as in this gouache, while Whistler adopted his famous butterfly signature that evolved over the years. Both served, not only as signatures, but as decorative devices.
Asleson, Robyn. "Nature and Abstraction in the Aesthetic Development of Albert Moore." Ed. Elizabeth Prettejohn. After the Pre-Raphaelites. Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999. 115-34.
Muther, Richard. The History of Modern Painting, London: Henry and Co., vol. 3, 1895.
Created 30 July 2021