Gustave Moreau was a French Symbolist artist of the 19th century. As a painter of literary ideas rather than visual images, he appealed to the imagination of the Symbolist writers who were reacting against Naturalism and Realism, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans. Born in 1826, Moreau, was considerably older than Huysmans’ generation, but his enigmatic and often erotic paintings struck a chord in the Symbolist milieu.
Huysmans’ novel, A Rebours [Against Nature] written in 1884, describes Moreau as a precursor to the Symbolist movement. A Rebours quickly became the ultimate example of decadent literature telling the story of the aristocratic anti-hero, Jean Floressas des Esseintes. Bored by the aesthetic and carnal pleasures of the Parisian high society, des Esseintes rejects the cultural trend of the moment. In constructing his own world of artifice that mirrors his painfully neurotic sensibility and near religious dedication to art, he strives for a new aesthetic exemplified by a generation of Romantic Symbolists, more particularly Gustave Moreau. In the present extract, des Esseintes, who is undergoing a spiritual crisis, is absorbed in the solitary contemplation of Moreau’s paintings. The text explores the psychological and sexual impact of Moreau’s exotic images:
“With the sharpening of des Esseintes’ desire to withdraw from a hated age, he felt a despotic urge to shun pictures representing humanity striving in little holes or running to and fro in quest of money.
Once he had cut himself off from contemporary life, he had resolved to allow nothing to enter his hermitage which might breed repugnance or regret; and so he had set his heart on finding a few pictures of subtle, exquisite refinement, steeped in an atmosphere of ancient fantasy, wrapped in an aura of antique corruption, divorced from modern times and modern society.
For the delight of his spirit and the joy of his eyes, he had desired a few suggestive creations that cast him into an unknown world, revealing to him the contours of new conjectures, agitating the nervous system by the violent deliriums, complicated nightmares, terrible and indolent visions they induced.
Among these suggestive creations were some executed by an artist whose genius allured and entranced him: Gustave Moreau…
It was des Esseintes’ opinion that never before, in any period, had the art of painting produced such brilliant hues; never before had an artist’s wretched chemical pigments been able to make a canvas sparkle so brightly with precious stones, shine so colorfully with sunlight filtered through stained-glass windows, glitter so splendidly with sumptuous garments, glow so warmly with exquisite flesh-tints.
And so, lost in contemplation, he sought to discover the origins of Moreau, this great artist and mystic pagan, this visionary who could sufficiently abstract himself from the world in order to see, in the heart of Paris, the resplendence of these cruel visions, the magical apotheosis of past ages.
Des Esseintes could not trace the genesis of this artist. Here and there were vague suggestions of Mantegna and of Jacopo de Barbari; here and there were confused hints of da Vinci and of the feverish colors of Delacroix. But the influences of such masters remained negligible. The fact was that Gustave Moreau derived from no one else. He remained unique in contemporary art, without ancestors and without possible descendants. Going back to ethnographic sources, to the origins of mythologies, the blood-stained enigmas of which he would compare and analyze; reuniting and blending into a whole the legends of the Far East which had been metamorphosed by the beliefs of other peoples, he justified in this way his architectonic fusions, his luxurious and unexpected amalgams of material, his hieratic and sinister allegories that were made more acute by the anxious perspicuity of a wholly modern nervous disposition; and he remained in an eternal state of distress, haunted by symbols of perversity and of superhuman love, of divine debaucheries consummated without constraints and without hope.
Gustave Moreau’s depressing and erudite productions possessed a strange enchantment, an incantation that stirred one to the depths, just as do certain poems of Baudelaire, cause one to pause disconcerted, amazed, brooding on the spell of an art which leaped beyond the confines of painting, borrowing its most subtle effects from the art of writing, its most marvelous stokes from the art of Limosin the enameller, its most exquisite refinements from the art of the lapidary and the engraver.”