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Art & History
March 2020

Musée Gustave Moreau keeps artist’s spirit alive

More than a century ago, the artist himself transformed his family home into a showplace for his other worldly artworks.

By

Photo credit:

Chris Welsch

In color and form, the facades that line the streets of Paris often present a uniform front, and the illusion of conformity.

Stepping through the front door of the Musée Gustave Moreau, one enters a prime example of how appearances can be deceiving. Inside one finds an unexpectedly large mansion whose walls are crowded with otherworldly spiritual scenes, vast canvases depicting meetings of the gods, and tiny apartment rooms dense with the lovely memorabilia of a life lived in the well-to-do bourgeoisie of Paris in the 1800s.

Moreau was a well-known member of the city’s intellectual elite during the mid-to late-1800s, when France was at the peak of its industrial and cultural might. Marcel Proust, Édgar Degas and Emile Zola were among his friends and admirers. But Moreau was a true original — his vision for his art went beyond the canvases he painted or the figures he drew.

“I can think of no other artist who planned like this — to leave his whole corpus together in a museum he planned himself,” said Charlotte de Charentenay, our storyteller who leads Secret Journeys’ experience at the Musée Gustave Moreau.

“I discovered this museum as a child,” Charlotte said, “ and even then I was impressed by the atmosphere and the mystery of the place. It’s not like a regular museum. There’s a spirit in there.”

That spirit derives from the artist himself, who lived in the house, and early in his career began thinking about creating a lasting legacy. As early as 1862, decades before his death, he wrote that,“separated [the works] will perish; taken together they give a little idea of who I was as an artist and the atmosphere in which I liked to dream.”  Accordingly, in 1895, toward the end of his life, he began the work of turning his family home at 14 rue Rochefoucauld in the 9th arrondissement into a museum celebrating his own work. He had two large, light-filled studio rooms, connected by a graceful, open spiral staircase, built on top of the existing structure and made other renovations to accommodate as many paintings and drawings as possible.

In some rooms, he had panels on hinges installed to make space for dozens of works. The museum holds most of the 8,000 paintings, watercolors, and drawings he made in his lifetime.

On a recent visit to the museum, one of the museum’s administrators took the Secret Journeys team into some of the smaller rooms where she opened the paneled walls so we could see some of Moreau’s works usually hidden from the public. There were naked sirens, forbidding sea gods, and scenarios from myth and the Bible, idealized figures with eyes focused in the distance.

Moreau considered himself a “history” painter, and many of his paintings echoed classical themes, but he considered his work a highly spiritual pursuit, inspired by his imagination. He innovated in the use of color as a building block in his compositions, and later in his career created non-figurative paintings that pre-dated the Abstract movement by decades.

At the end of his life, Moreau was a well-loved professor at the top art school in France, l’École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, where he counted Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault, among others, as his students.  

Charlotte said that Moreau’s work influenced later generations of artists, particularly the Surrealists, but others have mentioned later masters such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, whose color-block compositions find echoes in Moreau’s techniques.

“Moreau was very different from all his contemporaries,” she said. “He was contemporary to the Impressionists, but he developed his own way. The plein air was not interesting for him, nor was modern life. He was truly unique.”

Moreau saw his work as a deeply spiritual pursuit; he said he wanted to “render visible, so to speak, the inner flashes of intuition … that reveal magic, even divine horizons.” Charlotte noted that he referred to himself as “an assembler of dreams” — an apt description of his canvases, or even for the self-made museum that we can visit today.

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