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Gustave Moreau: A French Painter Fascinated by India

Gustave Moreau

Captivated by the marvels of India, the leading figure of the Symbolist art movement Gustave Moreau took inspiration from Indian paintings, monuments and traditions to form his characteristic style. 

19th century in France: The Rise of Indophilia 

The ties between India and France are historic. In the 17th and 18th centuries, with the growth of maritime connections between the Western world and India due to the establishment of the East India Company, interest in India began to take root in France.

This curiosity continued to grow, reaching its peak in the 19th century and evolving into a movement known as “Indianism.” This movement reflected a fascination and appreciation for the ancient texts, religions, and arts of India.

Well-known figures in French literature and art expressed their admiration for Indian culture, influenced by their readings of ancient Vedic texts. For instance, Voltaire, a significant figure in pre-revolutionary French thought, wrote in the 18th century, “Everything came to us from the banks of the Ganga.”. 

Indianism spread through the translation of Indian texts, and the reproduction of art in the form of engravings and Indian paintings. Even the world of card games couldn’t resist this phenomenon, as the Cartes Indiennes attests. These French sets of cards from the end of the 19th century were indeed adorned with Indian patterns, appreciated by customers. 

This allowed artists who never visited India to explore and appreciate its wonders. Gustave Moreau thrived in this atmosphere marked by a growing interest in India, despite having yet to experience firsthand experience of its marvels.

Gustave Moreau: An Artist Fascinated by India

Gustave Moreau, a devoted reader, invested a significant amount of time studying and preparing his works before crafting their final compositions. 

During his explorations at the Louvre and the Imperial Library, he stumbled upon the Gentil collection. Gentil was an officer of the East India Company and a passionate collector of 18th-century Indian miniatures. His collection captivated Moreau who gradually incorporated and reproduced them in his own works.

Gustave Moreau: Fantasizing India through History 

Moreau is renowned for meticulous works from great history, showcasing historical or mythological events. One of his most famous pieces is “The Triumph of Alexander the Great”. It depicts a crucial event for both Western and Indian histories, dating back to the 4th century BCE. The Macedonian king Alexander the Great, after having conquered most of the Asian continent, faced and defeated King Porus, sovereign of lands in present-day Punjab. Known as the battle of Jhelum, it was the last victory of the Western king before he turned home, tired by years of unrest. This cross-cultural encounter fostered the emergence of the intriguing Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. 

India, perceived by Moreau as a “distant and mysterious land” and the “cradle of the world,” is portrayed in its entirety as he envisions it. Markedly stereotyped, the representation includes an immense throne, religious architecture blending Hindu and Buddhist deities, sacred lakes, majestic elephants, mountains reminiscent of the Himalayas, and lush vegetation.

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Gustave Moreau: An Art of Adornments 

It is in the details that one can discern Moreau’s meticulous reproduction of Indian decorative elements. In the lower right corner of “The Triumph of Alexander the Great”, a group of women, wearing opulent attire, catches the eye. These women don garments resembling saris, and their faces, necks, and arms are adorned with jewellery taking their forms from the Indian vocabulary.

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Gustave Moreau: Recreating the Architecture of India 

In “The Triumph of Alexander the Great,” Gustave Moreau reconstructs supposedly Indian religious monuments using composite architectural elements he observed in various works. Architectural sketches reveal his reproduction of columns, decorative elements, and Buddhist stupas, among other components. In this instance, these elements have been skillfully assembled to craft the distinctive building depicted in the background.

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Gustave Moreau: Reinterpreting the Indian Elephant 

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

“The Sacred Elephant (Péri)” portrays a Persian fairy riding on an elephant in a heavenly, lush environment. The theme is oriental, and like many of his contemporaries, Moreau takes artistic liberties in his fanciful representation of the East, blending various influences.

In this instance, the Persian theme incorporates decorative elements inspired by India. This is evident in the richly ornamented and adorned elephant, drawn based on a Mughal miniature that Moreau observed at the Louvre, where it is still housed.

(Image Source: collections.louvre)

Gustave Moreau: Indian Themes

However, Gustave Moreau’s exploration of India extends beyond the addition of decorative elements to his compositions. He creates works inspired by Indian traditions or at least his perception of them. For instance, he paints a series centred around Indian poets, depicting women and men reciting poetry in lush natural settings. 

In the painting “Indian Women Poets” exclusively featuring women, Moreau brings forth a fantasised vision of tall and majestic women.

Gustave Moreau
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In the evocative mythical and historical world painted by Gustave Moreau, French techniques, styles and themes are adorned with an Indian touch. Although this touch is fantasised and India is romanticised, the respect and admiration of Moreau is perceptible through his faithful rendering of the Indian spirit. This is the result of his thoughtful observation and reproduction of Indian artworks. 

Overall, Moreau’s use of Indian patterns and themes is a means to breathe life into an oriental dreamscape. It invites observers to wander through a realm that merges history, fantasy and myth.

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Written by Léa Joshi-Sharma, a museum professional based in Paris, France who specialises in Indian arts and archaeology.

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