Gustave Moreau and “The Unknown Masterpiece”

A sidelight to the Hammer Museum’s focus show, “A Strange Magic: Gustave Moreau’s Salome” is two small oil sketches verging on complete abstraction. They come from the Moreau Museum, Paris. At his 1898 death, Moreau left hundreds of near-abstractions in his studio, none of which had ever been exhibited publicly. His partisans have made the case that their man was the first abstractionist.

Moreau began producing small, brushy sketches as early as 1855. Some are related to major paintings like Salome; others seem to be color experiments that may not have been preparatory to anything. By the late 1880s Moreau was about where Kandinsky would be 20 years later, producing paintings that were non-objective save for a fugitive hint of figure or a descriptive title. At top is Sketch D. Below is is Battle of the Centaurs (about 1890), a watercolor resembling a Lee Krasner.

Moreau must have been thinking of works like these when he wrote:

“One thing is uppermost for me, an impulse and ardor of the strongest kind toward abstraction. The expression of human feelings, of the passions of man, interests me very much indeed, but I am less inclined to express these movements of the soul and spirit than to render visible, so to speak, the flashes of imagination that one doesn’t know how to situate, that something divine in their seeming insignificance and that, translated by the marvelous effects of pure plasticity, open magical horizons that I would even call sublime.”

The final link in the Moreau-as-abstractionist syllogism is that Moreau taught Matisse and Roualt. Ergo, he was the first Fauve. Roualt became the first curator of the Gustave Moreau Museum, which opened in 1903. Moreau’s abstractions were on view in a Parisian museum well before any 20th-century artist’s were.

How did Moreau come to paint abstractions? All agree he was influenced by the Romantic oil sketch tradition. One of his earliest quasi-abstractions, The Cavalier (c. 1855, left) is an homage to Delacroix.

There is a plausible literary precedent, too: Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 short story “The Unknown Masterpiece.” Set in the 17th century, Balzac’s tale has Nicolas Poussin and Frans Pourbus the Younger encountering a fellow painter, Frenhofer, said to be a student of Jan Gossaert (a.k.a. “Mabuse”). Frenhofer has spent 10 years working on a portrait he refused to show anyone.

Porbus and Poussin, burning with eager curiosity, hurried into a vast studio. Everything was in disorder and covered with dust, but they saw a few pictures here and there upon the wall. They stopped first of all in admiration before the life-size figure of a woman partially draped.

“Oh! never mind that,” said Frenhofer; “that is a rough daub that I made, a study, a pose, it is nothing. These are my failures,” he went on, indicating the enchanting compositions upon the walls of the studio.

That’s a decent description of Moreau’s studio, filled with “daubs” and works in all states of completion. Finally, Poussin and Pourbus see the masterpiece. It’s incomprehensible.

“Do you see anything?” Poussin asked of Porbus.

“No… do you?”

“I see nothing.”…

In a corner of the canvas, as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living delicate beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town.

“Art cannot exceed the boundaries assigned it by nature,” the real Poussin said, and this line is paraphrased by Balzac. Frenhofer’s years of labor had produced incoherent madness. He ends up killing himself and burning his lifework. The Balzac story is a key text of the romantic theme of creative artist as nut case. Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick adopted it in The Shining.

Balzac did not describe a non-objective painting. That must have been inconceivable even to his imagination. Instead he exaggerated the Romantic tendency, seen best in Turner, to supply a small narrative subject to a “chaos of color.” Moreau adopted a similar approach, as did James Ensor, although both worked in a more figurative mode as well.

There’s no doubt that later modernists identified with Frenhofer. Émile Bernard wrote of this encounter with Cézanne: “One evening when I was speaking to him about The Unknown Masterpiece and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac’s drama, he got up from the table, planted himself before me, and, striking his chest with his index finger, designated himself—without a word, but through this repeated gesture—as the very person in the story. He was so moved that tears filled his eyes.”

Picasso, who created an illustrated edition of The Unknown Masterpiece for Vollard (below), was practically a Balzac stalker. He rented Pourbus’ old studio, Nº 7 rue des Grandes-Augustin, where the tale begins. While there he painted Guernica.