In Review

Gustave Moreau’s The Fables at Waddesdon Manor: what the critics are saying

‘Looking at these dream-worlds is like passing through a fairy-tale forest thick with magic’

The French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) has never regained the “cult status” that he had in his lifetime, said Maev Kennedy in The Art Newspaper. His work is rarely exhibited today, and if he is remembered at all, it is as a histrionic and “feverish” figure.

His palette, one critic complained, was like that of a jeweller “drunk on colour”’; and no scene was complete without a flourish of the fantastical – with monsters, deities or demons. Yet in his time, he was considered “a visionary sage” who taught and greatly influenced the likes of Henri Matisse.

Now, a small show at Waddesdon Manor, a National Trust home formerly owned by the Rothschild family, seeks to explain why. The exhibition brings together the surviving fragments of a series of watercolours Moreau created to illustrate the fables of the 17th century poet Jean de La Fontaine. When first exhibited, this cycle created a sensation: George Bernard Shaw, for one, remarked that it entitled Moreau “to rank with Delacroix and Burne-Jones”.

Created between the 1870s and the 1880s, the series of 64 pictures was sold on the original owner’s death and then split: about half of the collection was “looted by the Nazis”, and most of it has never been recovered. This is the first time that almost all the remaining pictures have been shown in public together for more than a century. Can it restore Moreau’s reputation?

I approached this show with some “trepidation”, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Moreau’s reputation for artistic “onanism” is well deserved, and the works in this exhibition make few concessions to subtlety. The first image we encounter is an allegory of Fable as a woman “flying across the sky on the back of a hippogriff”. Another has “an angry dragon with more tails than an octopus has legs” crashing through a fence to devour a man hiding in a tree.

Elsewhere, Moreau depicts a fable in which a man falls in love with his cat and somehow manages to turn her into a woman. After some “furious lovemaking”, she leaps from bed to chase a mouse across the room. The protagonist of this “creepy” tale is shown cowering in the sheets like “a child watching a horror movie”.

Yet eccentric though they are, The Fables represent “a remarkable body of work”. These pictures teem with “blues that throb like powdered sapphires, reds that glow like rubies, gold that gleams like an Australian nugget” – exceeding all expectations of what can be achieved with watercolours.

Gustave Moreau’s ‘The lion and the gnat’

Gustave Moreau’s ‘The lion and the gnat’

Waddesdon Manor

His depictions of animals are “beautifully observed”: Moreau captures an elephant frightened by a mouse and a “screaming monkey” riding “on the back of a speeding dolphin” more believably than you might think possible.

You don’t need to be familiar with La Fontaine’s fables to marvel at Moreau’s bizarre inventiveness, his breadth and his originality, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. Each picture is “a miniature world unto itself”: Moreau paints the Senate of Ancient Rome, “quasi-Dutch and Shakespearean scenes”, and even “radiant landscapes reminiscent of Turner”.

“Looking at these dream-worlds is like passing through a fairy-tale forest thick with magic and flickering, supernatural lights.” What an “intoxicating vision” Moreau’s was. And “what an extraordinary show this is”.

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