Visiting The Gustave Moreau Museum

I spent last weekend in Paris and, unusually for me, I didn’t intend to spend any of it in collectors fairs or junk or antique shops – even though the vast wonders of Clignancourt were hardly far away. Much as I love my job (which actually makes up most of my life), we all need a break from time to time. One place I did intend on visiting was the fabulous, and little-known, Gustave Moreau Museum in Montmartre. When I studied History of Art & Architecture at university, I wrote my dissertation on this superb late 19thC artist, so spent many a day studying his paintings and the thousands of preparatory drawings displayed in his custom-built gallery and museum. I was keen to revisit it and spend some peaceful and unpressured time reacquainting myself with his work.
Gustave Moreau (1826-98) was a French Symbolist artist who, after studying with Francois-Eduard Picot and copying the Renaissance greats in Florence and Rome, focused on painting mythological and biblical stories and characters. His finely detailed, jewel-like works can be seen as precursors to the both the Symbolist and even the Modern movements – the latter being particularly seen in his preparatory sketches. He produced over 8,000 works, but sold only around 450 in his lifetime. Upon his death, he passed both his home (also his gallery and studio) and his enormous oeuvre to the French state so that a museum could be founded. Prometheus, The Daughters of Thespius, The Suitors, Hesiod & The Muses, and the fantastic Life of Humanity ‘altarpiece’ are particular highlights of the museum, but you can also see his Apparition in the Louvre, and his stunning Jason and Orpheus in the Musée D’Orsay across the Seine. Other masterpieces (and lesser works) are in private and public collections spread across the world – one particularly notable piece being Oedipus & The Sphinx in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
As his work is comparatively scarce, and was expensive in its day, prices for Moreau’s work are high. Furthermore, most of his work comprised sketches, with finished paintings comparatively few and far between. A preparatory sketch may fetch from around £3,000 for the simplest upwards, and a finished painting of a mythological or biblical subject may cost anything from £600,000 to over £1million! As such, I have only been able to afford reproductions. But rather than go for posters or printed canvases, I chose to buy period prints, typically cut from art publications printed at the time Moreau’s work was being exhibited at the Paris Salons and elsewhere. These can be found for anything from £10 upwards. One day I’ll try and save up for an etching by master lithographer Félix Bracquemond, who reinterpreted his friend Moreau’s works for printing. They’re still expensive, but more affordable at prices ranging from £500 to £1,200 or so. In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy my periodic visits (above, on the spiral staircase in the main gallery), and reading books. If you find yourself in Paris, I really do recommend you spend an hour or two in this idyllic and surprising gallery, browsing both his wonderful work and the treasure-filled rooms of his private apartment, which is also open to the public.

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