Gustave Moreau, Narcissus, 1890.

“True stories don’t interest me…to be as different as possible from Nature is the true function of Art.”

Renée Vivien, A Woman Appeared to Me, 1905.

In his classic study of Romanticism, The Romantic Agony, Mario Praz critiques Moreau in relation to Eugène Delacroix: “Delacroix, as a painter, was fiery and dramatic; Gustave Moreau strove to be cold and static. The former painted gestures, the latter attitudes. Although far apart in artistic merit…they are highly representative of the moral atmosphere of the two periods in which they flourished – of Romanticism, with its fury of frenzied action and of Decadence, with its sterile contemplation…Delacroix lives inside his subject, whereas Moreau worships his from outside, with the result that the first is a painter, the second a decorator.” 

Praz labels Moreau a ‘decorator’ with implicit disdain, but it’s apt nonetheless. Even within his paintings, Moreau emphasizes glimmering detail, jewels, ornaments, flowers, furnishings and intricate, exotic architecture, to the degree that Jean Lorrain described him as painting “with the subtle art of the lapidary and enameller.” His bodies are indeed static, hieratic, rigid as statues, poised as repositories of symbolic connotation. Narcissus is a perfect subject for such a painter. A fatal beauty, forever frozen, gazing entranced at his own marvelous reflection – he is not painting a mere man, but an embodiment of vanity itself. In Moreau’s hands, even Salome’s wild, passionate dance becomes a fixed pose – it is not the vitality of the action that is being captured, it is the Idea, all the sumptuous tyranny and sinister eroticism of the eternal Salome – J.-K. Huysmans’s “symbolic incarnation of undying lust” – that is being represented. 

It’s entirely fitting that Moreau’s Symbolist images, marrying all the staid splendor of the Idea with all the gratuitous carnality of the beautiful body as decorative object, were popularized by their praise in Huysmans’s À Rebours. The context that gave them significance was a fictional Decadent’s “sterile contemplation,” his indexing them amongst the peculiar furnishings and esoteric objects that fill his perfect aesthetic abode. A Symbolist work never tries to escape its artifice. The painting doesn’t ask the viewer to step into the picture-plane and bleed, sweat and cry with the people in the scene. In fact, it demands to be seen hung on a wall – a wall of just the right color, in just the right lighting, with just the right scent in the air, while just the right poetry is read and just the right liqueur is sipped. 

I work at an art museum. In the Art Nouveau room of our decorative arts gallery, mounted behind twining, sensuously ornamented furniture by Gallé, Majorelle and Guimard, we have Gustave Moreau’s Narcissus. There couldn’t be a better place for it.