Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele

Moreau paints with brilliant jewel-like colors, and everywhere we look the figures seem filled with Melancholy.

Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, 1894–95, oil on canvas, 213 x 118 cm (Musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

 


Additional resources

Symbolism on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Peter Cooke, “Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting,” The Art Bulletin, volume 90, number 3 (2008), pp. 394–416.

Peter Cooke, “Gustave Moreau and the Theatre,” The Burlington Magazine, volume 159, number 1374 (2017), pp. 706–13.

Peter Cooke, Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality, and Symbolism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Andrea Truitt, book review, Symbolist Art in Context by Michelle FacosNineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, volume 13, number 2 (Autumn 2014).


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re here in the Musée Moreau, the museum dedicated to the art of Gustave Moreau, here in Paris. This was once his house, which makes this a very personal experience.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:15] We’re looking at a canvas called “Jupiter and Semele.” And it’s a great example of Symbolism.

Dr. Harris: [0:21] Symbolism is known primarily as a literary movement, but there were also many painters who we describe as Symbolists. In the decades just before this, we had Impressionism. Impressionism was all about what one sees and experience of the visual world.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] And the ephemeral, the momentary.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] The Symbolist artists turned inward. Dreams become more important than visual reality. Let’s talk about “Jupiter and Semele.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] Before we begin, I think it’s probably good to characterize this canvas as being extraordinarily detailed, overwrought in the extreme.

Dr. Harris: [0:58] Here we have Jupiter, king of the gods from ancient Greek and Roman mythology, also known as Zeus. He and a mortal named Semele have been lovers, and they’ve conceived another god, who we’ll know as Bacchus.

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] But Jupiter’s wife, Juno, was jealous and suggested to Semele that she ask Jupiter to reveal himself to her fully.

Dr. Harris: [1:21] Knowing that this will result in Semele’s death.

Dr. Zucker: [1:24] We’re seeing that moment.

Dr. Harris: [1:25] We see Semele wide-eyed, staring at the magnificence of Jupiter revealed fully in his divinity. Notice he’s not sitting on a throne. He’s almost striding forward. His eyes, too, are wide.

[1:41] He’s bejeweled even more than I can imagine any figure in Western art, like van Eyck’s God in the “Ghent Altarpiece,” with gems and pearls covering his body.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] Look at the way the drapes fall below the throne and cascade down, almost like a waterfall. His left arm rests on a lyre, which is generally an attribute of Orpheus or of Apollo. Moreau suggested that this meant that what we were seeing was not just a god but a god-poet.

Dr. Harris: [2:11] Semele’s hair flies out to the left, also fitted with jewels and gold and pearls. We have this powerful story of this inability of human beings to encounter the divine.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] But this is only the central story. These gods are surrounded by a multitude of figures on a variety of levels.

Dr. Harris: [2:33] In this architecture that seems to have no beginning and no end, no roof, no foundations, and encrusted with vegetation and angels that come out of the shadows.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] Just in front of the throne, we see two female figures. The figure on the left holds a bloodied sword, this is Death. Opposite her is a woman crowned with thorns holding a lily, this is Pain. Look at that large dark eagle, and just before him, this lounging figure of Pan, the Greek satyr who’s associated with humanity’s untamed side.

[3:07] If you look closely, on his thigh, there are small figures that are bound to him that seem to be struggling to free themselves, and one can only imagine that this is mankind.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] Below, we seem to have a realm of darkness, of magic, of the supernatural. We see a goddess associated with magic. She wears a crown with a moon above her.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] On either bottom corner are sphinxes, and then below, a river of blood. This is perhaps the most lushly painted canvas I’ve ever seen.

Dr. Harris: [3:38] You can tell by looking at the surface this has been painted in many layers.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] With brilliant jewel-like colors, that feel as if they’re almost enamel, rather than paint.

Dr. Harris: [3:48] Everywhere we look, the figures seem filled with melancholy, and I see that especially in the winged figure with his head in his hands, who’s said to represent the death of earthly love. If you think about what a painting of a myth was supposed to look like, it was supposed to be able to tell a story very clearly, and that was the academic tradition that Moreau was trained within, and yet painting this so radically different from the expectations of academic painting.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] It’s a completely personalized, idiosyncratic reading of mythology. It brings together references to Christianity, to Greco-Roman pagan traditions, but also the traditions of Hindu and Buddhism, as well as the ancient religions of Egypt.

Dr. Harris: [4:34] The view of reality for the Symbolists was one of profound melancholy.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] That idea is so much a part of the last years of the 19th century, the last years of the great empires, this moment when we knew that the modern was becoming dominant.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] And this time when the old systems of belief don’t work anymore, and artists are finding a personal language to express important ideas.

[5:03] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele," in Smarthistory, August 1, 2023, accessed April 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/gustave-moreau-jupiter-and-semele/.