One of the greatest sources of French national pride is that (supposedly) all Frenchmen are born romantics. After all, France was the birthplace of Romanticism. The Romantic era in French painting grew out of the static, academic excesses of Davidian Classicism with such painters as Delacroix and Gericault leading the way. It was mirrored in both literature and music, some would even say architecture as well. But it faded. Beset first by the Realist movement, then Impressionism, little remained of it's heroic glory except its legacy of color over drawing. Then, in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century, its dying embers suddenly flamed brightly in what has been called Symbolism. French artists such as Rodolphe Bresdin, Odilon Redon, and Gustave Moreau echoed Gustave Klimt in Germany in their jewel-like impressions of ancient mythological and Biblical subjects. It was not NEO-Romanticism, but it WAS romantic.
In 1998, an art historian was digging through a cupboard in a museum and made a discovery art historians go to bed DREAMING about. He pulled out a large roll of canvas containing an unfinished painting done by the premier Symbolism painter, Gustave Moreau. It depicted the mythical Diomedes being devoured by his horses. Okay, so it may have been more of a NIGHTMARE than a dream, but it was nonetheless a startling discovery. How could such a major work, even an unfinished work, go unnoticed for a hundred years? Well, when Moreau died in 1898, he left a large, three-and-a-half story house in Paris packed to the rafters with some fifteen THOUSAND of his paintings, drawings, and watercolors. Add to that mounds of books, papers, and journals and it's little wonder it's taken curators of the Moreau Museum, which now occupies the place, a hundred years to go through the stuff.
Moreau, during his lifetime, was never wealthy, but then again, he was never hurting for money either. His work sold, but he was never forced to pursue sales, and because of that, his fame was limited to France itself. It was 1964 before the first retrospective of his work occurred outside the country. During his lifetime, it would be safe to say he HOARDED his work. He painted for himself. His favorite subject was the Biblical Salome, best known for her dance numbers before King Herod. Moreau painted her so many times he became knows as the "Painter of Salome." Yet his most famous painting, purchased by Prince Napoleon in 1864 for 6000 francs, was "Oedipus and the Sphinx," the mythological tale of a monster who poses riddles and devours all those who cannot solve them. The romantic Oedipus succeeded of course, and good triumphed over evil. Salome, Oedipus, Orpheus, Hercules, and the whole gang can now be seen in a new show, "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream" at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 25, 1999, when it moves to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where it will remain until August 22.