Gustave Moreau: The Fables online exhibition
Gustave Moreau (1826-98) was one of the most original artists of 19th-century France. The exhibition currently on display in the Manor presents to the public, for the first time in over a century, some of the most extraordinary works that he ever made, on loan from a private Rothschild collection.
Moreau’s illustrations of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95) were made between 1879 and 1884 for the collector Antony Roux (1833-1913). There were originally 64, but nearly half disappeared during World War II. See a selection of these extraordinary watercolours and find out more about them in our accompanying online exhibition.
The fable form has been described as ‘a false story picturing the truth.’ La Fontaine’s Fables (first published 1668-94) are among the most celebrated works of French literature, revered as masterpieces of lyric poetry and loved for their pithy wisdom and identification with the underdog. They have proved adaptable as commentaries on current events and Moreau is in a line of artist-illustrators (including Jean Baptiste Oudry and Gustave Doré) who have reinvented them for each generation.
La Fontaine gathered stories from classical antiquity (including Aesop) and European and Asian folk traditions and Moreau responded to this variety of sources with an exhilarating array of visual styles. The watercolours pay homage to painters from Leonardo da Vinci and Mantegna to Turner and Géricault, Persian and Indian miniatures and Japanese prints. There are Orientalist fantasies and Dutch-style scenes of everyday life; medieval and pastoral visions; expressionistic landscapes and near-abstract chromatic experiments.
Made at the height of the French revival of watercolour, Moreau’s Fables show off the possibilities of the water-based medium and its ability to vie with oil painting in the creation of studio-made works for exhibition. One contemporary described them as ‘all ablaze with the colours of the prism’.
Moreau first found fame as a painter of mythological and Biblical subjects, grounded in academic training and visualized in an arresting, sometimes troubling, highly idiosyncratic style. His work anticipated the French Symbolist movement and, particularly through his teaching of artists (including Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse), he influenced the development of Expressionism, Surrealism and Abstraction. The originality of Moreau’s storytelling is underpinned by the brilliance of his drawing. For the Fables, he explored the possibilities of each subject in dozens of compositional studies, life drawings and sketches of animals that he observed in the Paris zoo, the Jardin des Plantes.
Whether played out by animals, humans or gods, Moreau translates La Fontaine’s concern with morality and the human condition into his own, startling, visual language. The Fables fascinated their first audiences and were the subject of Moreau’s only one-man exhibition during his lifetime. A reviewer for The Pall Mall Gazette in 1886 described the artist as ‘less the illustrator of the fable than of allegory, witchery and enchantment’