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The Database of Ornament

IT is at first necessary to separate some of Gustave Moreau’s
characteristics from the loose admiration they have brought
about. A dim recognition of his excellence has been caught
by the current of opinion, for it has root in an old longing,
that touch of nostalgic unrest we have, wrapped among the
habits and renunciations forming our ways—in that truly
spiritual leaven, to push circumstances at times beyond their common scope,
in our craving for manna, at least, upon the alien sand. But whatever in the
present finds self-expression in his work has, after all, gathered there into
some special thing, lifted out and beyond the capacities of his surroundings ;
and the existence of so complete, so finished an art utterance amid the
unkind haste of to-day becomes strange if one forgets for the moment how
irresistible is all art growth, whatever may be its everyday conditions, how
separate is always its real achievement, contemporary opinion concerning it
being merely a matter of accident. If an air of pallour in its fruition marks
this obstinacy in growth, art, nevertheless, has become gifted by the effort
with a new sense of beauty, or one, that, for its degree, seems different from
the older sense that was only enamoured of health; the temptation to see
things by this newer knowledge will in part explain the fascinated return
of the art mind to the past, for we watch it in perspective, conscious of
its calm (tinged possibly with weariness), through an atmosphere coloured
by the atoms of our many experiences and ways of thought,—through a
subtile apperception of our weakness, become a subject also of interest in our
half-longing return to that past, so divine in shoulder, so youthful in its
immunity from failure. Yet such retrospective curiosity may prove new
only for its present degree; one may be tempted to imagine it part of all
art effort, in revolt from the immediate, were not opposition too partial, too
limited in work, too separate from the grave sense of growth and expansion,
that is art, to be of serious value as suggestion.

    In a characteristic phrase Gautier once sketched this desire to possess
the past with the added charm it now has for us; he ends with a mention
of Flaubert as incurable in this matter, and Flaubert’s correspondence teems
with revealing touches evoked at the actual contact with facts meaningless
to others as mere loose rubble or dust of the past, but, to his gift of divina-
tion, redolent of rare sensations, intense, even to the verge of awe; so that
a stray aroma of rose or balm from the rent in some sepulchre conjured
up to him the shapes, the passions of a world whose being, passed into his
books, yields the essence of that magic he felt so keenly, with much, to the
reader, of that sunset glamour, of nostalgia.

    This love of forgotten things joined to Flaubert’s admiration for Moreau’s
pictures, has led to obvious comparison between the two artists, though a
slight pause in judgment might show how false all such comparisons
must be. With Flaubert that haunting force was vivid to create the
real light of a possible past with each detail cast out into clearness, or
troubled only by the emotions of his actors to whom these realities become

10                                                                                                strange

strange at times, as so many things must have been in those periods of
unquestioning expression.

    With the painter the case is all different, for Gustave Moreau remains a
lover of mythical half-light, light not yet lost in the encroaching night nor
absorbed by the approach of day, of emotions in a morning twilight when
Cerberus, forgetting his chain, may wander beside dark pools, near ghostly
reeds ; for time, a thing so present with the author, has become suspended
to the moment when neither ship nor god need be gone yet; and nothing
is importunate with its reality. We are in a world only of mid-distances,
bounded by low-breathing seas, with littoral towns against the sky ; in a
place where the passing of a bird, for its suddenness, is an emotion. Here
are flowers with strings of crystals made sharp in hue and texture, for
appeal to our visual-touch, to forbid the conviction that all this may be
mirage, that his mystic creatures must soon vanish with the perfumes
ceasing to breathe in those censers, and leave with us but a handful of
aromatic dust, the dust of hair, dust of laurel leaf, and the glimmer in
the grey of forgotten things ; as, in ancient urns, we find a tarnished coin
among the faded ash, a gilded siren as symbol of some story it is unable to
recall. Thus all resemblance to Flaubert lies only in the compass of their
hatred for the commonplace.

    In a book of impressions on art (Certains) Monsieur Huysmans lays too
great stress on the element of contrast in some designs Gustave Moreau
executed toward the illustration of La Fontaine. With him, for the
sake of critical emphasis, much of the painter’s work becomes too para-
doxical in means not to be somewhat mechanical. His descriptions else-
where of other pictures, as well as this note, abound, it is true, with acuteness
of feeling; they have unfortunately over-influenced subsequent criticisms
more general in tone. It is through these, possibly, that Monsieur Huysmans’
statements become annoying ; nevertheless, in justification of him, Gustave
Moreau’s consent to become involved in such a task was strange it must
be admitted, in some degree unlucky, none of the fables suggesting a subject
fitted to his great, but entirely lyrical scope. Animals under unaccustomed
conditions—at the best, persons sententious on manners—lay outside the
world of his vision ; not to seem purposeless, they had to be clothed with
a new air of unreality, to move in the flora and cloud of a fairyland empty
of those gracious figures that meet him there half-way, for his great know-
ledge of them. The number of these drawings became troublesome, and,
despite the beauty of many, one turned with a sense of relief to other works
where his handling, with its virile nervousness, moved with more freedom ;
where motives dear to him made quick his hand and pleasured his vision,
realising those instants so suggestive, when the fury of an act has passed
or gathers into new purpose beneath skies flushed by an aftermath of sun
that recall for their touches of orange and bands of brooding purple these
words, “quelles violettes frondaisons vont descendre?”—words so expressive
of that hush in nature, become strange in expectation of some countersign
pregnant for the future.

    It is against a sky like this an all-persuasive figure moves away, the

11                                                                                                head

head of Orpheus lies between her hands, and one scarcely knows if her
fastidious dress, decked with so many outlandish things, has been clasped
to her wrists and chaste throat in real innocence of the burden she holds
mystically ; but this hint of sentiment is too slight, too fugitive in the
picture to become heavy or morbid. Enigmatic forms in contemplation
move through other works; the Salomé, for instance, where she is already
conscious of the doom between her and this face whose nimbus grows in
the declining daylight, as the dawn might grow on a blind when the lamp
goes out ; the sky centres to a blood-like spot, half cloud, half garment of
the executioner passing beyond, a fearful messenger to God. It is a spot
of blood like this, in the shape of a little cloud above the sea—clasping in
its most secret blue the future Rhodes,—that gives to the picture of Helen
an undercurrent of doom to which the actors in it are half or all indifferent.
This picture, unless my memory deceives me as to its execution, confirms
his tendencies in one effort whose elements of beauty had haunted him
before, but, till then, not achieved so supreme an aspect. From the brow
of a cliff that is a town Helen moves, pedestailed on broken colours that
creep upward across her dress in a succession of amulets and fronds, to
twine and twist into frail leaves, with stray spilths of ruby towards the
chalice of a blossom she holds near her face whose flesh is luminous against
the samite sky. And below her rainbow garments in which the colours of
the clouds and earth are married, so grouped and so clasped together to form
part of the ramparts, are the wan faces and faded hands of those who, for
her sake, have been won to Death ; and their mouths smile yet, for, at the
moment of death, when the lips grow wreathed, and the eyes profound,
they have sunk into the arrested sleep of some Elysian place, to wait, with
“that touch of irony that must have been Persephone’s,” their return to
life, or the prolonging of their rest into this hour plucked from out of
time. Thus, leaves of laurel and gathered buds are still in their hands,
or the swords whose edge was fashioned against themselves. And that
silent brotherhood, this buttress to the house that must not stand, is
clothed with wreaths and incense haze, as if about a mystic sacrifice for
which nothing can be too good, too strong, nothing too fair. What touch
of foreboding may linger here smoulders, away in the cloud and horizon,
for the artist does not tell if she, who found nothing but praise between
the lips of man, and praise gazing from his eyes, is capable of happiness
even ; if hand over hand she is about to leave this place whose nights and
days have become bitter with the ache of love and grief ; if this phantom
knows herself to be more than woman, a symbol in some divine semblance,
and would exult could she know laughter or tears. In this picture Baude-
laire’s hymn to beauty has become visible, but purged of whatever, through
the limitations of a language, may be touched by posture, epigram ; and
her eyes know they have no need to see.

    Moreau has shown her elsewhere (in a small water-colour drawing,
L’Enlèvement) under the closer light of actuality, imaginative actuality, but
wrapped always in her separateness from blame. She leans softly in an
amorous bend against Paris, on the foppery of whose Phrygian dress the

12                                                                                                artist

artist has dwelt with minutest care, making it a delicate setting to her half-
nakedness ; the flight of their chariot drawn by willing horses is past a
landscape of crags, the sky burns its passion out above the sea becoming
black ; and in the blue, among the rocks, the Dioscuri still on horseback
are accomplices. The artist has abandoned the strenuous finish in work-
manship of his masterpiece, to become rapid of hand in the pencilling of
cloud and form, and by an afterthought, half poetic intuition, half sheer
pleasure in colour, he has added a bird dipped in crimson as a stray envoy
of Venus, accentuating by its aerial flight the buoyancy of the lines in the
picture; for he is always lucky in such suggestive touches, and his shrewd
sense of literary suggestion in painting never fails him.

    Literature, by gradual process of appeal to the imagination, the sense of
growth through which it brings things about, may show any incident,
implying its degree of import in a hundred ways, conveying a sensation all
pleasurably subtil, where the eye, called to view only a result, might find
mere fact in illustration. Take the sonnet by Ronsard, whose subject at
first sight would appear almost pictorial with its implied winter light and
mirror gleam in which Helen, become old and wrinkled, muses sadly on
her vanished beauty. Imagine it translated in painting with the implied
splendour once hers only dimly shadowed forth, how uncertain would be
the result dramatically ; outside the field of words her momentary bitterness,
or harlot’s petulant frivolity, or whatever might make her more real to us,
would become a record only of that mood.

    In an early phase of his art one great painter has succeeded in painted
narrative. When taking up the tangled threads of a remote legend, Rossetti
has cast together under the search-light of an intense and generous imagina-
tion, not only the incidents of a story interwoven with new poetic additions
and suggestions, but the almost digressive element of personal predilec-
tions (predilections with a touch of surprise, discovery) in circumstances
and counter-incidents ; shrinking from no complexity for his certainty of
grasp in close-knit design and handling whose expressiveness never flagged.

    With Gustave Moreau, the dramatic element is entirely evocative; one of
undoubted intensity, but under lyrical and ornamental conditions his
creatures would become troubled and shadowy indeed ; if brought face to
face with facts and real passions, they would swoon upon themselves,
called back by some sudden Lethean murmur, or inner portent ; their
realities are confined to a few fair things fostered in the shadow of palaces
and ravines, in the mists from rivers, where light, water and air have
become resolved into the cold limpid colours of the topaz. The evidence
of separate life, of the without, so hotly insisted on by Rossetti, is reduced
to the half-fascinated wheeling, the circular-flight of a bird, fraught at
times with great realistic point, as in the shrieking seamew that flashes
across the fall of Sappho from the rocks. His choice is of half-mystic
things, things of ritual ; in this and his partiality for certain colour har-
monies will be found his greatest limitation ; yet in this lies also a sense
of voluptuous melancholy so attractive to the spectator if unbiassed by the
conventions of French and English habits.

13                                                                                                The

    The danger is great by over-emphasis to deprive a living thing in art,
with its variety and many phases, of lifelikeness and freedom, as bad
painters deprive their subject of all “undulation” by a rule of thumb they
are pleased to consider completeness of rendering. The art of Gustave
Moreau is living, varied and, like all living things, capable of that counter-
change in virtue or personal force that is allowed even to divisions in nature,
through force of will, desire, or in mere reaction and fatigue.

    Therefore among his pictures some will be found very different in temper,
pictures impetuous in dramatic feeling, as the Diomède dévoré par ses chevaux,
in which the feet of the tortured man bend back with suffering, and his whole
body is borne from the ground in its fall by a vehement gesture of cursing
and the rush of his horses ; the Phaéton, L’Hydre de Lerne, Le Retour
d’Ulysse, the Sapho expirante. But these are largely a reaction from too
long a brooding in his charmed habitual mood, and in a score of things they
have a sense of nervous refinement, an implied languor in their rage, that
groups them in his enigmatic world of terrible silences. Yet it is odd, not
a little illustrative of the real lack of artistic activity now prevalent, that
such works should be the only pictures that recall the autocratic, the over-
bearing impetuosity of Delacroix, produced by one whose temperament might
well have been averse to this frenzy.

    To-day accusations of plagiarism are broadcast against very ordinary per-
formances even, lest, in the hurry, one man should fortunately escape. With
this great artist none of these accusations is reconcileable to the authentic
stamp of his personality, drifting as they do between Mantegna, Turner,
Blake! or vaguely the Italian masters.

    Such questions are hopeless, such similitudes would have puzzled King
Solomon himself; had it been on the subject of art similitudes that the
bright queen wished to be enlightened, his wisdom might—who knows?—
have been tasked beyond the powers of his divining ring, and that amulet
of his, for the control of “loose spirits in their places and the very insects
whose ways are in the sand.”

    An influence of Chasseriau has been put forward ; an early picture,
belonging, like the Jason et Médée, to a period of transition (of youthful
ingenuity), will largely explain this critical impression, for Moreau inscribes
it, in a dedication near the frame, to the memory of this dead artist. But
the youth (in Le Jeune Homme et La Mort) who crowns himself on the
threshold of Death’s house, a handful of plucked flowers in his hand, is far
removed in purpose from anything seen hitherto in French art, though some
accents to the drawing remind one that Gustave Moreau was once the
winner of a now forgotten Prix de Rome ; and there is a difference of more
than two art centuries between his shape and the passive figure of Death,
whose work of destruction is left to an Anteros, too young, extinguishing a
torch tricked with nightshade.

    It might be difficult to account for so many opinions concerning the
genesis of his pictures, did one not know the tendency in most people to
discover similitudes through a lack of some genuine test to their impressions.

    With the unaccustomed passer, trailing his feet about a gallery of antiques,

14                                                                                                all

all remain alike as unaccountable things in stone ; this casts an oblique
light into much criticism that, before work fastidious in its expression,
jealous of its point of view, will recognise the uniform stamp of refinement
on imitation, and, till the word be found by others, expressing our indebted-
ness for this new knowledge, knows but the word Plagiarism, so smooth
to the ears of indifference.

    There are many unusual influences blent in the fabric of his creations,
influences of many moods and memories, playing on them, drawing expres-
sion where they strike in some delightful iridescence of tone and thought.
None would resolve the beauty of a crystal into known gases, in some
arrangement of angles ; and art, unlike natural products, besides its
elements of composition, contains some of the divine initial force that brings
it about in emanation, as it were, whose quality calls force to force. To
experience the sense of fascination holding him at work; for its sake, to com-
bine, to hoard, towards that season when this end is achieved, weaving positive
time and emotions into it, must be the only way of enjoying work like his, cer-
tainly of no use to persons of acquired feelings, to whom all new effort remains
objectionable and obscure. Yet the penetration of this obscurity is to find it
enchanted with “ spirit eyes”; this strangeness outside our immediate expe-
rience becomes a simple possession for to-morrow, winding as a stirring
freshness might among the leaves, in that which each day brings of bud to
bloom. In the wrack of the past (“ that approximate eternity certainly
ours ”) this artist has plunged, to bring with his return the evocative chime
on chime of a new thing or message. One sentence of De Guérin’s recalls
to my mind not only this, his great gift, but, very curiously, the possible
aspect of a picture by him ; the lines describe a young fisherman whose
body, for a moment swayed against the sky, plunges among the trouble of
the waters, to return, his head sometimes radiant with wreaths.

    His gift of renewing our interest in old, outworn subjects is revealed in many
works—Moïse exposé sur le Nil, La naissance de Vénus, David. It would be
difficult to imagine a more noble picture than this last for invention, yet
more intimate, with all its splendour of detail, though, to some, the
handling might seem thin, for the colour scheme growing into an evening
silver. Each touch is indeed fortunate, from the waning of the incense to
the faded lily David holds in guise of sceptre; this hush over all seems
the soul of the dying man become mystery and colour, wherein a lamp
burns whiter every instant; as each cloud sinks, the weight of a crown
bends the royal head towards the hands whose grasp is loose ; between the
pillars with their symbols moulded in gold, against the marge of the horizon,
a bird sings. But, at the foot of the throne, nestling like a dove upon a
shrine, its limbs and body folded among the kingly vestments, is a visible
spirit of God, clothed with the androgynous garments of the angels ; the
face has, with its awful joy, some suggestion of a Christ at the age when he
disputed with the Doctors, and, by a touch of the imagination really inspired,
the fingers of this apparition pass across the harp whose strings the king
can no longer know.

    Hantise is the word by which a new critic has conveyed the secret note

15                                                                                                whose

whose obsession strikes so weird a sweetness through the work of Gustave
Moreau. And his art is verily haunted by that fantastic and goading
spirit of perfection, who dwells always in the centremost chamber of the
past ; but his personal way of bringing this near to others remains his
grave achievement. In a train of delicate purposes he passes a sponge across
the lost hues of some ancient picture of passion, making it visible, not
only for that moment but for many moments of return; he makes actual
that which must be too frequently but the echo of a remote recollection,
nostalgia, for lack of a better word, an emotion naturally decried of those
passers, whose bread is the wreck and refuse from the sea of circumstance,
and to whom this strange activity seems hectic, even dangerous.

                                                                                                CHARLES R. STURT


MLA citation:

Sturt, Charles R. [Charles Ricketts]. “A Note on Gustave Moreau.” The Dial, vol. 3, 1893, pp. 10-16. Dial Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.