Gustave Moreau, Helen of Troy : Majestic Beauty

Musée Gustave Moreau, from 21 March to 25 June 2012.

1. Photograph after Helen
from the Salon of 1880
(Oil on Canvas, 147 x 90 cm,
whereabouts unknown)
in Catalogue de la vente Jules Beer,
Galerie Georges Petit,
29th May 1913 (n° 17)
Paris, Collection of Pierre-Louis Mathieu
Photo : Pierre-Louis Mathieu.

Over the past few years, the Musée Gustave Moreau has organized exhibitions highlighting a particular aspect of the master’s art, a theme, a previously unexplored facet, a part of the immense oeuvre residing in this private residence on the rue de La Rochefoucauld. We know that the museum, which Moreau wished to be in his "studio-home", obviously does not have a temporary exhibition space. All that was needed to overcome this obstacle was a bit of imagination, resolved by reorganizing the hang for each new event thus resulting in very attractive exhibitions, to the point that this restricted space has almost been turned into an advantage : the temporary presentation of a subject remains in the same setting alongside the permanent collection in these famous and magnificent rooms. The selected aspect of the artist’s work is enhanced but stands out in context without ever losing sight of Moreau’s art as a whole. The fact that some pieces are of course temporarily removed is not a problem compared to what is gained by revealing others and also maintaining many more which remain on view.

After La Relation de Moreau avec Huysmans in 2007, his experience as a "sculptor" ("L’Homme aux figures de cire") in 2010 and a look at Théophile Gautier in 2011, it is now the painter’s fascination with Helen of Troy which is featured here. Moreau was known to be an obsessive artist, working and reflecting on the same subject for years, even decades ; this was the case for Salome and Oedipus. Far from the production of literary illustrations or purely formal repetitions, the painter, undoubtedly one of the most original and demanding of his time, "worked" on a theme which underwent a complex and logical evolution : the paintings, studies, documents or other evidence of his exploration of a certain theme reflect the progress in his thinking and execution both in their material form as well as in their sensual expression.
A well known example is the case of Salome and we ourselves had suggested an interpretation in the drawn-out reflection on Oedipus (see article in French) : with Helen of Troy, Pierre Pinchon, the exhibition curator in association with Marie-Cécile Forest, the director of the museum, offers a very convincing vision of the subject in a remarkably precise study. Based exclusively on the works and the sources, both plastic and textual, the exhibition shows us the artist’s very particular conception of this heroine. Although Moreau was familiar with ancient texts (let us remember that the museum holds his library), he nevertheless yielded a painted version which is a simple narrative and does not fall under the so-called iconography of the "femme fatale", otherwise extensively applied to the artist in his lifetime and, alas, even more so in the 20th century. It is true that the question of a menacing and fatal vision of women did indeed haunt the artists and poets of the late 19th century but some historians have transformed this issue into a wearisome cliché. Returning to Moreau, the artist defends an idea which patently opposes the image of the femme fatale. When he exhibited at the Salon for the last time, in 1880, Moreau therefore presented his Helen of Troy. This was the last painting shown publicly in an official artistic venue but it is also a lost work (the last trace was in 1913 after the estate auction of the collector Jules Beer) and has now become a symbol of artistic mystery : the work has been "taken" from us in the same way as Helen of Troy. The exhibition has thus been organized around a missing painting, presented in fact thanks to old, black and white photographs in the same format as the original work (ill. 1).

2. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Helen, around 1880
Pen and Brown Ink
on Pasted Tracing Paper - 29.7 x 16.9 cm
Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau
Photo : RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda

3. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Helen on the Trojan Ramparts
Oil on Canvas - 95 x 50 cm
Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau
Photo : RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda

As Pierre Pinchon astutely asserts, Moreau seems to be pleading the case for a very personal conception of Helen. The heroine, in a theatrical dimension thanks to her posture, the décor (a sort of symbolic setting) and the iconography of the victims in the Trojan war, no longer designates an episode of this myth but evokes rather an "innocent" image of Helen whose beauty provokes the conflict through no fault of her own. This emblematic conception of the myth, characteristic of a painter more concerned with projecting his vision than following a literary source, is confirmed by the ensemble of works linked to the theme : drawings, studies including both earlier and later paintings of the work last viewed in 1880.
A beautiful pen and ink study (ill. 2) as well as a preliminary oil (ill. 3) confirm the artist’s intent. Critical descriptions allow us to imagine the painting with its colors and matter, otherwise visible only in a black reproduction : they were magnificent and the work was qualified as "the last Romantic work". The different versions and studies from 1879/1880 reveal the evolution in the painter’s thinking who first presented Helen as melancholic and resigned upon seeing the soldiers who had died for her beauty. However, Moreau quickly distanced himself from this vision in order to render the heroine "guiltless" and, by reducing the number of "victims" with a symbolic triumvirate (warrior, prince, poet) elevated Helen to an iconic representation of majestic Beauty. The presence of these three suffering figures, representative of three major states (combat, power and art) would become as much a "leitmotiv" in Moreau’s mature work as in artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, as demonstrated by Pierre Pinchon in the exhibition catalogue with a few suggestions for possible ties between the two artists.
At times endowed with "Byzantine" finery, shortly after the "discovery" of the supposed ruins at Troy by Schliemann inside the territory of the former Oriental Empire, but also wearing Marian colors, Helen eludes her "literary" and strictly "antique" condition attaining a universal image of Beauty, which is a source of elevation but also of strife and suffering.

4. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Studies for costumes for Julia Bartet
in the role of Bérénice at the Comédie Française

Pen et Black Ink, Black Chalk
Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau
Photo : RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda

5. Photograph of Julia Bartet in the Role of Bérénice
Belt and Pearl Necklace Worn by
Julia Bartet in Bérénice, around 1893
Pearls, Goldplated Metal, Chromed
Stage Tiara Worn by Julia Bartet in Bérénice,
Produced by René Lalique around 1899
Aluminum with Ivory
Versailles, Musée Lambinet
Photo : D.R.

Next to the first section, a display case along with some drawings and watercolors evoke the painter’s interest in theater and his contacts with the tragic actress Julia Bartet (1854-1941), the most famous at that time along with Sarah Bernhardt, Suzanne Reichenberg and Marguerite Moreno. A friend of Moreau, Julia Bartet received a watercolor representing Helen of Troy (Paris, Musée d’Orsay) as a gift from him. When playing Bérénice at the Comédie Française in 1893, she asked the painter for advice and he designed her costume as well as her jewelry (ill. 4). Some of these jewels from the play are displayed in a beautiful glass cabinet with a photograph of the actress in that role ; in 1899, when the tragedy was once again performed, René Lalique produced a new tiara ; this magnificent piece is also shown in the display case (ill. 5).

6. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Helen at the Scee Door
Oil on Canvas - 72 x 100 cm
Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau
Photo : RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda

We have seen that Gustave Moreau imposed his own, changing, vision of Helen of Troy in his very first works on the theme, but the exhibition shows that the painter did not stop with the lost masterpiece of 1880. Following the Salon, the artist continued his reflection and conceived Helen at the Scee Door, surprisingly free in both its treatment and iconography (ill. 6). Although the question of whether the works left in Moreau’s studio were finished or not remains under discussion, the sense of the painting here allows for a very convincing interpretation. We know that the artist had read Euripides and Goethe’s second Faust : the legend by which Helen never went to Troy and was replaced by a "sinister haze statue" shaped by Hera to trick the men and the gods seems to have seduced Moreau. Venturing even further in relieving Helen of all guilt, absent at the time of the drama and only an illusion, the artist sums up her presence as that of a ghost rather than a real protagonist. He depicts two strikingly modern Helens at the same time, two hazy statues, composed of impasto on a blue background (ill. 7).

7. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Oil on Cardboard - 55 x 45 cm
Photo : RMN/ René-Gabriel Ojéda.

However, Gustave Moreau, much as in his treatment of Oedipus, does not stop here. At the end of his life, coinciding with the Symbolist "moment", he returned to Helen, a "glorified" Helen in his own words, now more Symbolic even than in his early works : finding his inspiration in the second half of Faust in which Goethe rescues Helen from hell turning her over to his hero, Moreau treats the subject, according to Pierre Pinchon, like "a pagan assumption in the artist’s syncretic thinking".
A study in lead pencil, a watercolor (ill. 8) then the large oil of around 1897 (ill. 9) show the elaboration of this last vision : rid of any trace of Trojan décor, a kind of apparition, Helene, face on, bearing a halo, surrounded with stars and almost framed in a mandorla, is elevated, statued, while the prince, the warrior and the poet, martyrs of Beauty are raised to the dignity of accompanying "saints" around her.
The legacy of the ancient texts is enriched with a mystical conception which allows the painter, reaching beyond Byzantium, to add a medieval dimension in the graphic and iconographic treatment of this fond theme. Thus attaining the Symbolists’ and Baudelaire’s message of Beauty, "a dream of stone", this ultimate Helen is striking in her radiant and triumphant whiteness whose marble aspect also conveys a funereal sentiment.

8. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Helen Glorified
Oil on Canvas - 230 x 120 cm
Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau
Photo : RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

9. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Helen Glorified
Watercolor - 19 x 12 cm
Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau
Photo : RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda

These few lines can only account for one of the many aspects of the wealthy artistic materials and interpretaions explored by the exhibition and the catalogue. The latter, a model publication in its concision, quality and subject provides us, based on images and analyses, a complete look at the theme and the works illustrating it. Real essays, texts in the form of thematic entries, a complete iconography, notes, an index and a bibliography all constitute an accessible, clear and pedagogical volume without ever compromising to over simplification. This type of exhibition, known as "dossier" or case-study, normally designates a small body of works but is too modest here since it treats in fact a real subject in a scholarly and thorough manner, providing a very rewarding moment for visitors at a time when art works are often just a pretext for an interesting "discourse" at events or in publications which do not concern themselves enough with art history.

Curators : Marie-Cécile Forest and Pierre Pinchon

Collective work, Gustave Moreau. Hélène de Troie, La Beauté en majesté, Musée Gustave Moreau, Edition Fage, 2012, 125p., 20€. ISBN : 978 2 84975 257 9.

Visitor information : Musée national Gustave Moreau, 14 rue de La Rochefoucauld, 75009 Paris. Tel : +33 1 48 74 38 50. Open every day except Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Admission : 6.50€ (reduced : 4.50€ ; free for anyone under 26).

Version française

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, jeudi 26 avril 2012

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