Moreau's main focus was the illustration of Christian and mythological figures. As a painter of literary ideas rather than visual images, he appealed to the imaginations of some Symbolist writers and artists, who saw him as a precursor to their movement.
His father was an architect, who recognized his talent. Moreau studied under François-Edouard Picot and Théodore Chassériau, with whom he may have become lovers; Moreau also carried on a deeply personal 25-year relationship, possibly romantic, with Adelaide-Alexandrine Dureux, a woman whom he drew several times. His first painting was a Pieta which is now located in the cathedral at Angoulême. He showed A Scene from the Song of Songs and The Death of Darius in the Salon of 1853. In 1853 he contributed Athenians with the Minotaur and Moses Putting Off his Sandals within Sight of the Promised Land to the Great Exhibition.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, one of his first symbolist paintings, was exhibited at the Salon of 1864. Over his lifetime, he produced over 8,000 paintings, watercolors and drawings, many of which are on display in Paris' Musée Gustave Moreau at 14, rue de la Rochefoucauld (IXe arrondissement). The museum is in his former workshop, and was opened to the public in 1903.
Moreau is buried in Paris' Cimetière de Montmartre.
Europa and the Bull,
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French Symbolist painter known for his erotic paintings of mythological and religious subjects.
The only influence that really affected Moreau's development was that of his master, Théodore Chassériau (1819–56), an eclectic painter whose depictions of enigmatic sea goddesses deeply impressed his student. In the Salon of 1853 he exhibited “Scene from the Song of Songs” and the “Death of Darius,” both conspicuously under the influence of Chassériau.
Moreau's “Oedipus and the Sphinx” (1864; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) and his “The Apparition (Dance of Salome)” (c. 1876; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.) and “Dance of Salome” (c. 1876; Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris) show his work becoming increasingly concerned with exotic eroticism and violence, and his richly crowded canvases made greater use of dramatic lighting to heighten his brilliant, jewel-like colours. His last work, “Jupiter and Sémélé” (1896; Musée Gustave Moreau), is the culmination of such tendencies. Moreau's art has often been described as decadent. He made a number of technical experiments, including scraping his canvases; and his nonfigurative paintings, done in a loose manner with thick impasto, have led him to be called a herald of Abstract Expressionism.
Moreau succeeded Elie Delaunay as professor at the École des Beaux-Arts, and his teaching was highly popular. He was a very influential teacher of some of the artists of the Fauve movement, including Matisse and Rouault. At his death, Moreau left to the state his house and about 8,000 works, which now form the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris.