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Visual arts: Gustave Moreau: The Fables (Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury)

10 September 2021

Susan Gray reviews the exhibition of Moreau’s La Fontaine illustrations

© Private Rothschild Collection/Jean-Yves Lacôte

Gustave Moreau, The Peasant of the Danube, 1881, watercolour, gouache, graphite, red chalk, and pen and ink. More illustrations in the gallery

Gustave Moreau, The Peasant of the Danube, 1881, watercolour, gouache, graphite, red chalk, and pen and ink. More illustrations in the gallery

ENTERING Waddesdon’s exhibition of Gustave Moreau’s illustrations to Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables is akin to climbing into a Victorian magician’s box of tricks. There are no puffs of smoke; but painting styles historical and contemporary, subjects social and mythological, appear before your very eyes in a firework display of colour and draughtsmanship. The curator Juliet Carey’s decision to create an immersive display in one, low-lit room of the late-19th-century manor house is intense and atmospheric.

Produced between 1879 and 1884 for the Marseilles collector Antony Roux, the 35 remaining Fables, of the original 64, are hung thematically, mythology leading on to animals before concluding with morality. Allegory of Fable was the first of the watercolours that Moreau completed for the series, and a contemporary described the blue of the hippogriff’s wings as “a strange and miraculous indigo in which all the azure on the skies seems to be”. In Fortune and the Child, the artist uses red chalk to outline the body of the boy, precariously asleep on the edge of the well, creating a sense of flesh and blood mass, without shading or modelling.

Jupiter and the Thunderbolts resembles Blake with its dynamic, central figure, all inky outlines, and contrasting bright, whip-sharp lines radiating from the god. The Peasant of the Danube relates the tale of the German peasant sent to Rome to protest about his people’s harsh treatment at the hands of the empire. In La Fontaine’s original, the peasant is ragged and evokes poverty, but Moreau has given him fine Grecian features, with the suggestion that the peasant represents Christ. With its browns and sepia tones, the palette of this watercolour is a contrast to the the brightly coloured depictions of classical myths.

For the fables’ beasts, Moreau invented mythological creatures, but also used studies from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris to produce life-like animals. In The Monkey and the Dolphin, where a shipwrecked monkey brags to a dolphin how important he is, before being found out and tossed back into the sea, the monkey is a realistic, open-mouthed, screaming animal, in terrifying close-up. The monkey’s sash ties him to civilisation and our sympathy. Below him, the dolphin is a bejewelled, heraldic concoction.

And animals do not have to follow realism to express emotion. Painted in 1879, before the animal studies in the zoo, The Lion and the Gnat portrays a lion in heraldic style with pointed tail and oversized limbs, but with a tortured, contorted body emphasising the violence in La Fontaine’s text. Watercolour’s expressive qualities are emphasised in a background landscape almost cut in half, with blue-black rocks on one side, and a sky alight with orange and yellow on the other. Against a dark tree stump, a gnat is painted on gouache, its whiteness standing out from the swirl of colours and shading behind.

The Lion in Love shows another stylised beast, with the texture of the animal’s fur and mane blending into the intricate treatment of the landscape and textiles. In contrast, the shepherdess’s body is bright and luminous, modelled on Cranach’s Venus in a Landscape, acquired by the Louvre in 1806. Scissors at the front of the scene, ready to de-claw the love-struck big beast, recall Samson and Delilah, and the enduring appeal of stories about the emasculation of men through love.

Moreau’s darkest interpretations are saved for the end of the show, but there is humour, too. The Litigants and the Oyster shows two pilgrims on a beach, against an overarching Turneresque, colour-washed sky, asking a passing peasant to decide which of them should have their one oyster. The peasant solves the dilemma by scoffing the oyster himself, and handing each of the pilgrims half its empty shell. For an added dash of Tabasco, the peasant is wearing a hat recalling the one worn by the Good Samaritan in Moreau’s painting of the parable.

For the phantasmagoric The Head and the Tail of the Snake, Moreau creates a near abstract vision of a nightmarish River Styx, marking the boundary between the world of the living and the underworld of the dead. Echoing previous representations of watery underworlds, the work draws on Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa in its treatment of twisting, reaching bodies. When the work came to be listed in Paris in 1945 after the breaking up of the collection, stumped cataloguers could only view its gold, amber, and azure otherworld and come up with l’Enfer (hell) as a description.

Death and the Woodcutter, a popular subject with French painters, including Millet, shows both Moreau’s preoccupation with death and his stylistic links to the Pre- Raphaelites. He was known as the French Burne-Jones. His woodcutter is young and terrified rather than the worn-down peasant of previous artists, and Death is an archetypal femme fatale, all coquettish veil and off-the-shoulder gown.

Moreau’s reputation as a biblical painter is illustrated by the one work not from the Fables, David dancing before the Ark. His depiction of the story from Samuel of the prophet dancing in a frenzy of joy as he accompanied the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem, is reminiscent of Burne-Jones both in the elongated figures and in the bright planes of colour. Opposite the painting is the story of Miriam Alexandrine Rothschild, the pioneering collector, who bought Moreau’s Fables from the Roux estate. The Fables were last seen in public in 1906 in Paris, seized by the Nazis, and partially restituted after the war. So a show that brings to life stories from antiquity is also eloquent on more recent history.


“Gustave Moreau: The Fables” is at Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, until 17 October. Advance booking online advised. waddesdon.org.uk

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