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Nothing but a dream

Nothing but a dream

22 Oct 2013 BY Dominique Wells

Nestling in an unassuming Paris street just south of Montmartre is a gem of a museum, frozen in time and bursting with charm and mystery, the Musée Gustave Moreau. In 1895, after having lived at 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld since 1852, Gustave Moreau, facing loneliness and with thoughts of death, had the second and third floors of his house converted into stunning studios connected by a graceful spiral staircase. The intention was to keep his compositions under one roof, “Separated, they perish; together, they give an idea of who I was as an artist and of the surroundings in which I enjoyed dreaming.” The first floor remained an apartment filled with memorabilia, antiques, ceramics and rare books. Copies of Italian paintings made during a stay in Italy form a museum in itself. The house was bequeathed to the French state on his death in 1898 on the condition that the collection remains intact, and the museum was opened in 1903.

The collection is phenomenal – 4,000 drawings are on display (another 10,000 are held in reserve) in beautifully designed swivelling cabinets and large drawers you could spend hours investigating. There are no less than 1200 paintings and 250 watercolours including the best of his work to be seen anywhere in the world. With access to all the preparatory drawings and watercolours, you have the luxury of following the development of each painting from the very first sketch. In a new display is a further illustration of his powerful technical and creative talent - a set of 15 masterfully executed wax sculptures, created as models for his paintings.

Born in Paris in 1826, Moreau trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to which he was appointed professor in 1892 (his admiring students included Matisse and Georges Rouault). He was greatly influenced by his friend Théodore Chassériau, an admirer of Delacroix. He spent two years in Italy in 1857-59 close to Degas where he developed an interest in Byzantine art and the primitive Italian painters. When he established a highly personal style in later years, his approach to traditional mythological and religious subjects became highly original and stood out from the more fashionable taste for naturalism. He received the Legion of Honour in 1883.

Moreau is mainly known as the leading painter of the French Symbolists, originally a literary movement with roots in Baudelaire and Rimbaud and developed by Mallarmé and Verlaine. The painters Odilon Redon and Puvis de Chavannes joined the movement in its philosophy of highly subjective interpretations of emotions leaning towards the mystical and the decadent.

The poet Robert de Montesquiou described Moreau’s work as the “refuge of the gods”. Moreau saw himself in a similar vein: “No one could have less faith in the absolute and definitive importance of the work created by man, because I believe that this world is nothing but a dream.”