- Gustave Moreau
- signed Gustave Moreau lower right
- gouache and watercolor on paper
- 52 by 25cm., 20½ by 9¾in.
signé en bas à droite Gustave Moreau
Baron Joseph Raphaël Vitta (1860–1942, collector and art patron, the subject of the exhibition Joseph Vitta: Passion de collection held at the Palais Lumière, Evian-les-Bains in 2014; his sale: Drouot, Paris, 27 June 1924)
François Lang, Paris (acquired in the 1930s. Lang, 1908-44, was a renowned pianist and collector, of both fine art and musical manuscripts); thence by descent to the present owner
Pierre-Louis Mathieu, Gustave Moreau: monographie et nouveau catalogue de l’oeuvre achevé, Paris, 1998, p. 416, no. 448, catalogued (as lost)
Helen was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and considered in Greek myth to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. When the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen and carried her off to the city of Troy, the Greeks responded by mounting an attack on the city, thus beginning the Trojan War. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the brother of Menelaus, led an expedition of Greek troops to Troy and besieged the city for ten years because of Paris's insult. After the deaths of many heroes, including the Greeks Achilles and Ajax, and the Trojans Hector and Paris, the city fell to the ruse of the Trojan Horse. The Greeks slaughtered the Trojans and desecrated the temples.
In the Salon picture, Helen - like Salome, Cleopatra, Salammbô, and Herodias in other works by Moreau - is, overtly, the personification of the femme fatale. As the Symbolist writer and author Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote of Helen in the Salon picture: ‘Standing, straight, against a frightening phosphorescent horizon splashed with blood, wearing a dress encrusted with precious stones, like a reliquary; holding in her hand, like the queen of spades in a deck of cards, a large flower; she walks, trance-like, with large eyes open, her gaze fixed. At her feet corpses pierced by arrows lie piled and, from the heights of her blonde beauty she surveys the carnage, majestic and superb like Salammbô before the mercenaries, like an evil divinity poisoning, unconsciously, all who approach her and everything at which she looks or touches.’ (L’Art moderne, 1883, p. 154)
Parts of Huysmans’s description of the Salon painting resonate in the present watercolour which, arguably, exemplifies an essential feature of the fatal woman theme as used in the nineteenth century: the female’s assumption of dominance traditionally associated with the male, here relegated to a state of complete pathos. However, there are as many differences between the two renditions as there are similarities. While Helen is still the dominant presence, there is a distinct shift in mood compared to the Salon version. The watercolour is altogether more gentle, and with religious overtones inspired by the Christian subjects of the Renaissance masters. Helen’s expression has the benign peace of that of the Virgin mother (an association strengthened by the addition of Trojan mothers and children in the background), while her pose is that of a saint in a medieval stained glass window. Retribution and revenge have been replaced by empathy and mercy. The vanquished are not dead or dying, simply subservient and in awe.
Its symbolism and references apart, the watercolour also embodies Moreau’s aesthetic preoccupation with line, colour, and the modelling of the human figure, which lies at the heart of his artistic endeavour. Underlying the composition is his defining rigorous academic draughtsmanship, informed not only by the Italian Renaissance painters Mantegna and Bellini, whose work Moreau studied and admired while living in Italy in the late 1850s, but by his teacher at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the academic painter François-Edouard Picot, and later by his friend and neighbour Théodore Chassériau; Helen's pose and features are essentially classical, perfectly befitting the Greek subject.
The classical composition is in turn embellished with an hallucinogenic jewel-like surface, making the watercolour a highly worked aesthetic object akin to a cloisoné enamel. As critic Charles Blanc wrote of Moreau’s watercolours: ‘One would have to coin a word for the occasion if one wished to characterise the talent of Gustave Moreau, the word colourism for example, which would well convey all that is excessive, superb, and prodigious in his love of colour. […] it is as if one were in the presence of an illuminant artist who had been a jeweller before becoming a painter and who, having yielded to the intoxication of colour, had ground rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, opals, pearls, and mother of pearl to make up his palette’ (in Le Temps, 15 May 1881). Interestingly, at about the time Moreau exhibited his Hélène at the Salon, he had used the subject as the vehicle for a purely experimental exploration of colour in oil (now in the Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris), in which Helen and the bloody scene are completely pared down and abstracted.
With its rich synthesis of sources and approaches, from Greek myth to the traditions of Renaissance art, from the symbolist to the aesthetic, Hélène is a complex and many-layered work that fulfils Moreau’s quest to move the imagination, and quite clearly inspired subsequent generations of artists, including the Secessionist artists, and notably Gustav Klimt (fig. 4).