National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 11 (VI:1), 1968

Annual Index
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Gustave Moreau: 
Same Drawings from the Italian Sojourn

by Pamela G. Osler, Acting Curator of Prints
The National Gallery of Canada

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2

Drawings signed and dated by the French artist Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) are for the most part products of his formative years. To this relatively little known group may be added a drawing done in Rome in 1858 and recently acquired by the Department of Prints and Drawings under the curious title Le génie de la musique inspirant le berger Pâris (fig. 1 ). (1) The drawing is highly developed and shows great sensitivity throughout. In the absence of any known related painting the winged Muse hovering over the languid figure of a reclining youth appears to be Moreau's final conception of a compositional theme that had preoccupied him during his prolonged sojourn in Italy from 1857 to 1859. (2)

Little attention has been given to this trip to Italy made when Moreau was in his early thirties. Perhaps this is due to lack of evidence: no letters or notebooks from this period seem to have survived. We do know something, however, about the artistic climate in which he worked while in Italy. The numerous copies he made after frescoes and paintings by Carpaccio, Gozzoli, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Luini, among others, indicate the direction in which his interests, stimulated earlier by Chassériau, continued to move. Occasional references to Moreau in contemporary letters (3) tell us that he was not unknown to at least some of the French artists in Italy who attended the Villa Medici or frequented the Caffè Greco in Rome: Degas, Puvis de Chavannes, Élie Delaunay and Léon Bonnat. Some of these younger artists may have accompanied him on his travels to places like Naples, Siena and Venice; certainly Degas was with him in Florence in the summer of 1858. (4) It is clear that wide gaps still exist in our knowledge of these years and of their importance in the maturing of his stylistic development. Only with the accumulation of documented material and the eventual grouping of related works may we begin to appreciate the complexities surrounding Moreau's personality and oeuvre.

Since the acquisition of the National Gallery's sheet, others (figs. 2, 3, 4) definitely related to it have been identified in the Musée Gustave-Moreau in Paris. Yet another related sheet, inscribed with the title HÉSIODE ET LA MVSE (fig. 5), (5) is in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Germain Seligman in New York. Apart from the obvious thematic link, three of the drawings (figs. l, 2, 5) have several characteristics in common: they exhibit similar spatial ambiguities, a Mannerist exaggeration of classicistic forms, and a strong planarity. Certain features in the handling of pen and pencil reappear throughout all the drawings in the group: generally, contour lines exhibit an uneven pressure in the manipulation of the drawing tool, often being reinforced with additional strokes; modelling is achieved by the use of soft, broken strokes laid close together to create shadows; and there is extensive use, particularly in the later drawings, of parallel lines laid across background and figures, tending to create a veiled atmosphere.

The order of this small group of drawings is not difficult to determine. The heavy, angular contours and the tentative rendering of the figures shown in fig. 2 clearly indicate that this drawing is the earliest within the group and probably the first version of the composition, barring the discovery of any other. Next come two sheets of studies - one from a book, with sketches of a lyre, a branch of laurel, wings, pipes, and a hand holding a libation bowl (fig. 3), the other a more fully elaborated study of the winged Muse (fig. 4). (6) Then follows the New York sheet (fig. 5), a second larger and more detailed compositional drawing in which certain transformations have taken place: the Muse's wings have given way to upward swirling drapery, her hair is coiled about her head and the position of her legs is reversed; the male figure now firmly clasps in his left hand the staff from which grows the laurel branch that formerly hung listlessly in his other hand, his Phrygian cap is more pronounced, and in place of the discarded wreath there now appear pipes on the sloping mountainside. Other minor changes need not be elaborated upon. The drawing is handled with greater assurance in this second composition, although neither softened, swelling contours in the lines of the figures and drapery nor the refined use of pen and pencil can dispel a certain stiffness. Happily the drawing is dated 1857. Rome, which helps date the three previous drawings to which it is stylistically linked.

The Ottawa drawing, the fifth in the series, is dated 1858. It is possible that Moreau did this drawing some time in January or February of that year since he had already been working out the idea in 1857. Some details seen in the earlier drawings, such as the wings, reappear in the later sheet but accessories and landscape have been reduced to a minimum. Pentimenti, particularly in the area of the Muse's legs and wings and the lyre, indicate that Moreau has reworked a second version of the Seligman sheet. Presumably this is the final version since Moreau has made certain alterations which strengthen the composition and intensify the confrontation of the two figures. A more subtle relationship has been established between the figures: the youth's right forearm is raised and points in the direction of the Muse as though to signify recognition, while the Muse, no longer aloof and ceremoniously holding aloft the lotus blossom, (7) leans forward intimately to touch the reclining figure with sensitive, outstretched fingers.
The sense of ritual evoked by the earlier drawings has given way here to a delicate lyricism effected by the fluid line and sfumato.

Since the Seligman drawing is inscribed HÉSIODE ET LA MVSE at the upper left in the artist's hand, it can only be assumed that the title of the Ottawa drawing, Le génie de la musique inspirant le berger Pâris, is incorrect. Even allowing for Moreau's acknowledged propensity for taking liberties with mythology, it would be difficult to find an explanation for the subject as described by the title of the Ottawa sheet. The problem resides in the figure of Paris, so called no doubt because of the Phrygian cap he is wearing. The motif of the cap is understandable if the languid youth is indeed Paris but the presence of the Muse raises doubts about his identity. The youth fits more logically into the role of Hesiod or Apollo, both of whom can lay claim to the attributes of lyre, pipes, staff, laurel branch or wreath, and even the Phrygian cap. Both are also shown frequently by Moreau to have the same soft and effeminate appearance {fig. 6), not unlike the figure of Paris in Raphael's Judgement of Paris, probably known to Moreau through Raimondi's engraving, to which he may have turned as a source for the Hesiod image in the group of drawings under discussion.

While it now seems evident that the theme of the Ottawa drawing is the inspiration of the poet Hesiod, Moreau's idiosyncratic mind may have evolved a personal mythology that somehow linked Paris with the concept of the awakening of creative activity. This may never be known. In any case one cannot ignore the fact that Moreau created an iconographical world of his own, peopled by ambiguous figures. The distinctions between one personality and another are never very clear-cut. The free association of ideas, set in motion by the beautiful, vaguely identified but disturbingly alike creatures that constantly reappear in Moreau's work, weaves a richly imaginative scene that unfolds sensuously before the spectator. Once lured into this strangely wonderful atmosphere, where one form and identity appears to merge into another, it is not surprising that in the course of looking at the drawings here the mind's eye is seduced by the suggested relationships between Hesiod and Apollo and other variations on the theme of creative inspiration, whether poetic or of a more divine order like Leda and the Swan (fig. 7).

It is possible that Moreau was going through a crisis of some sort during this sojourn in Italy. For some time prior to his departure for Rome he had withdrawn from Parisian society, was deeply involved with the writings of Pascal and appeared to be in a disturbed frame of mind. (8) Perhaps this group of drawings reflects the evolution of this psychic state. Moreau's preoccupation with the theme of the inspiration of the poet, and the progression from the awkwardness and stiffness of the early drawings of this subject to the lyricism of the final one might suggest a period of doubt and groping in his creative development, followed by a growing self-awareness. This suggestion is further hinted at by a gradual and subtle transformation in the nature of "la belle inertie," that quality characteristic of all Moreau's overly refined figures. In the first drawing (fig. 2) Hesiod's right arm hangs listlessly, the laurel branch droops, the wreath lies discarded on the ground and there is no contact between the totally passive Hesiod and the Muse. The Seligman drawing shows signs of life in the flowering staff and in the figure of the Muse who has retrieved the wreath. Finally, within the dream-like atmosphere of the Ottawa drawing there is a sense of mounting tension in the suspended interaction between Hesiod on the verge of awakening and the Muse emerging chrysalis-like as a creative force.

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