Painting of the Day

31 Jan

The Apparition - Gustave Moreau

The Apparition. by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Watercolor on paper, 1874-1876. Currently on view at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris. 

Notes from the fifth edition of the Art History textbook by Stokstad and Cothren:

A vision-like atmosphere pervades the later work of Gustave Moreau, an academic artist whom the Symbolists regarded as a precursor. They particularly admired Moreau’s renditions of the biblical Salome, the young Judaean princess who, at the instigation of her mother, Herodias, performed an erotic dance before her stepfather, Herod, and demanded as reward the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:21-28). In The Apparition, exhibited at the Salon of 1876, the seductive Salome confronts a vision of the saint’s severed head, which hovers open-eyed in midair, dripping blood and radiating holy light. Moreau depicted this sensual and macabre scene and its exotic setting in meticulous detail, with touches of jewel-like color to create an atmosphere of voluptuous decadence that amplifies Salome’s role as femme fatale who uses her sensuality to destroy her male victim. 

The Symbolists, like many smaller groups of artists in the late 19th century, staged independent art exhibitions, but unlike the Impressionists, who hired halls, printed programs, and charged a small admission fee for their exhibitions, the Symbolists mounted modest shows with little expectation of public interest. During the 1889 Universal Exposition, for example, they hung a few works in a cafe close to the fairgrounds, with the result that the exhibition went almost unnoticed by the press. 

My comments:

Moreau’s oeuvre is very interesting because every time I see it, I’m struck by how nonwestern it looks. The architectural details, the costumes, and the way he drew the figures’ bodies all contribute to its evocation of Eastern art. 

Although this is watercolor instead of graphite, it’s still interesting and informative to compare it to my art of the day two days ago, Ingres’s graphite drawing. In Moreau’s work, the lines aren’t as defined, and they aren’t expressive in the same way that they were in Ingres’s work. Here, light plays an important role, as Moreau made most of the watercolor light but painted darkly around the head of John the Baptist so that it could stick out in contrast to that dark. The elaborate costumes that the figures wear make this scene very different from what I think viewers would typically imagine when they think of this famous Bible story that’s being told. The exquisite detail here is typical of Moreau’s work, but his pairing of it with a Biblical subject matter is quite interesting. What made him choose the subject?

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