In collaboration with the Rothschild family and Musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris, the exhibition will reveal 34 watercolours, created by Moreau between 1879 and 1885, for the first time since 1906. They were part of a series commissioned by the art collector Antony Roux to illustrate the 17th-century Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. The works are on loan from a Rothschild family collection.
The watercolours were exhibited to great acclaim in the 1880s – in Paris and in London, where critics frequently compared the artist to Edward Burne-Jones. Moreau made 64 works for the series, 63 of which subsequently entered the collection of Miriam Alexandrine de Rothschild (1884-1965); however, nearly half were lost during the Nazi era. The surviving works have not been exhibited since 1906 and only a handful has ever been published in colour.
Created at the height of the French 19th-century revival of watercolour, the variety of subject matter, technique and their colouristic effects will be a revelation to visitors. One early commentator wrote that it was as though their creator ‘was a jeweller before he was a painter and who, drunk on colour, had ground up rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, pearls and mother-of-pearl to make his palette.’
While many of La Fontaine’s fables will be familiar to British audiences from Aesop’s fables, others are derived from traditional European and Asian stories. Moreau’s translation of La Fontaine’s pithy, canonical work into his own, highly distinctive visual language will surprise and delight. There are scenes of comedy, satire and tragedy, and the stylistic range of the watercolours encompasses historicism and the picturesque, Orientalist fantasies and near-abstract chromatic experiments. Visitors will enjoy spotting the influence of earlier artists, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Turner, Delacroix, Gericault and Hokusai. British critics in the 1880s praised the series; one described the works as full of ‘witchery and enchantment’; another commented on Moreau’s ‘keen apprehension of the weird’.
This exhibition in Waddesdon Manor, the home of the Rothschild Collection, will celebrate wider Rothschild links with Moreau, with the display of another little-known watercolour by the artist, which was acquired by Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934), the father of Miriam Alexandrine, who owned the Fables watercolours, and also of James de Rothschild (1878-1957), who inherited a third of his father’s collection and bequeathed Waddesdon to the National Trust.
Gustave Moreau: The Fables is curated by Dr Juliet Carey, Senior Curator Waddesdon Manor. She says “I still remember the excitement of looking at Moreau’s Fables watercolours for the first time, knowing that they had not been seen in public for over a hundred years and I am thrilled that visitors to Waddesdon will experience something similar. It is wonderfully appropriate that this exhibition is happening at Waddesdon, a place with strong links to the artist and a treasure trove of French art. There are few works by Moreau in British public collections, so these superlative examples will be a revelation.”
A version of the exhibition is scheduled to open at the Musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris, later in 2021, after Waddesdon.
Marie-Cécile Forest, Director of the Musée Gustave Moreau (MNGM), says “The MNGM, installed in the artist’s own house, possesses more than 25,000 of his works by him. The museum also preserves all the preparatory drawings for the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, as well as the watercolour Le Paon se plaignant à Junon [The Peacock Complaining to Juno], which was given to the museum in 1936 by Miriam Alexandrine de Rothschild.”
Gustave Moreau: The Fables, by Juliet Carey and published by Paul Holberton will accompany the exhibition (£25). Hardback, 160 pages, 100 colour illustrations, ISBN: 978-1-911300-86-1