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Watercolour - Sappho

Sappho

  • Object:

    Watercolour

  • Place of origin:

    Paris (painted)

  • Date:

    1871-1872 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Moreau, Gustave, born 1826 - died 1897 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Canon Gray in memory of André S. Raffalovich

  • Museum number:

    P.11-1934

  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level H, case WD, shelf 41, box B

This watercolour is part one of three scenes surrounding the suicide of Greek poetess, Sappho, a subject that Moreau frequently represented. It shows the Ancient poetess Sappho on the top of a cliff lamenting over the desertion of her lover, Phaon. The lyre, slung over her shoulder, is the traditionnal attribute of poets. As a precurser to Symbolism, Moreau sought inspiration from mythological, literary, and biblical references.

Physical description

Sappho rests on the promontory of Leucadia in an attitude of despair, wearing an elaborately patterned red and purple gown apparently based on kimonos in a Japanese print Moreau owned. Her lyre is slung over her shoulder. Seagulls circle overhead and the setting sun presages her impending suicide. At left, a pillar surmounted by the griffon of Apollo further emphasises Sappho's status as a poet.

Place of Origin

Paris (painted)

Date

1871-1872 (painted)

Artist/maker

Moreau, Gustave, born 1826 - died 1897 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour

Marks and inscriptions

'--Gustave Moreau--'
Signed in lower left corner

Dimensions

Height: 18.4 cm, Width: 12.4 cm

Object history note

Moreau exhibited Sappho at the annual exhibition of the Cercle des Arts in March 1872 (which belies the prevailing notion that his work remained out of the public eye between the Salons of 1869 and 1876), where it caught the eye of Parisian salon hostess Marie Raffalovich. She bought the watercolour from Moreau in June of the same year, thus beginning more than two decades of patronage. Although Madame Raffalovich bought several other paintings by Moreau, a collection of letters she wrote to Moreau which are preserved in the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris shows that Sappho remained her firm favourite -- she even wrote a fairy tale (never published) based on it.

The watercolour passed to her son, André, a poet, salon host and rival of Oscar Wilde in 1890s London, at an unknown date. However, it was definitely in his possession by 1894, as a letter that year from Aubrey Beardsley mentions 'your beautiful Moreau'. When he died, André left instructions for his companion, the poet and priest John Gray (the presumed model for Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray) to donate it to the V&A.

Historical significance: This is one of the only works by Moreau in the national collections (along with Costume design for a dancer, also in the V&A, and St George and the Dragon in the National Gallery).

Historical context note

This watercolour, with its rich, jewel-like colours is characteristic of Moreau’s later period. It shows the Ancient poetess Sappho on the top of a cliff lamenting over the desertion of her lover, Phaon. The lyre, slung over her shoulder, is the traditionnal attribute of poets. At left, a pillar surmounted by the griffon of Apollo, the Greco-Roman god of poetry, further emphasises Sappho's status as a poet.

Both Sappho’s vivid gown and her pose are taken from a Japanese woodcut by Utagawa Kunisada titled Genji taking the air in summer on the Sumida, which Moreau had purchased from E. Desoye’s gallery ‘Spécialités des objets du Japon’, the leading Japanese art dealer in Paris in the 1860s.

Signed ‘Gustave Moreau’ the work titled Sappho by the artist was exhibited at the annual exhibition of the Cercle des Arts, which opened on the 20 January 1872. There it caught the eye of Parisian salon hostess and great collector Marie Raffalovich. She bought the watercolour from Moreau in June of the same year, thus beginning more than two decades of patronage. Although Madame Raffalovich bought several other paintings by Moreau, it is known from her correpsondence with the artist that Sappho remained her firm favourite.

The watercolour passed to her son, André, a poet, salon host and rival of Oscar Wilde in 1890s London, at an unknown date. However, it was definitely in his possession by 1894, as a letter that year from Aubrey Beardsley mentions 'your beautiful Moreau'. When he died, André left instructions for his companion, the poet and priest John Gray (the presumed model for Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray) to donate it to the V&A.

Moreau’s fastination with Sappho as a subject began in 1849, after which he produced several cycles into the 1870s in both watercolour and oil. Sappho is part one of three distinct episodes depicting her death; the other two are entitled Sappho flinging herself into the Sea (in a private collection in Paris) and Sappho lying at the foot of the Cliff (formerly in the Esnault-Pelterie Collection; the smaller version now in the museum at Saint-Lo).

This is one of the only works by Moreau in a British national collection (along with Costume design for a dancer (E.49-1968), also in the V&A, and St George and the Dragon in the National Gallery).

A key work of the Symbolists was J K Huysmans' novel A Rebours, which contains an enthusiastic description of Moreau's exhibits in the Salon of 1876. Moreau's paintings were admired by Marcel Proust and by the Symbolists of the 1880s and 1890s, the group reacted against the fin-de-siècle realism in art.

Descriptive line

Watercolour by Gustave Moreau depicting 'Sappho resting on a cliff top'. French School, 1871-1872.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Toni Stooss, ed., Gustave Moreau Symboliste, exh. cat., Zurich, Kunsthaus, 1986, pp. 148-49, no. 38.
Jullian, Philippe, French Symbolist Painters: Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Redon and their followers, London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1972.
Le Japonisme, exh. cat., Paris, Grand Palais and Tokyo, Museum of Western Art, 1988, pp. 148-49.
Pierre-Louis Mathieu, Gustave Moreau. Monographie et nouvelle catalogue de l'oeuvre achevé, Paris, 1998, p. 322.
Geneviève Lacambre, ed., Gustave Moreau: between epic and dream, exh. cat., Paris, Grand Palais, Chicago, Art Institute and New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999, pp. 111-13, no. 40.
Rachel Sloan, 'Gustave Moreau and the Raffalovich family: new documents on Sappho', The Burlington Magazine 148, May 2006.
Gustave Moreau et le Symbolisme, exh. cat., Kofu, Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art, 1984, p. 93, no. 59.
100 Great Paintings in The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1985, p.180
Margot Th. Brandlhuber and Michael Buhrs, eds. In the temple of the self : the artist's residence as a total work of art : Europe und America 1800-1948. Munich: Villa Stuck, 2013. ISBN: 9783775735933.
P.172
Victoria & Albert Museum Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design & Department of Paintings Accessions 1934 London: Published under the Authority of the Board of Education, 1935

Labels and date

Gustave Moreau 1926-1897
Sappho
Probably about 1884; signed

Moreau was a French Symbolist painter. This work, inspired by an opera by Gounod, depicts the Greek poet Sappho. She committed suicide after being abandoned by her female lover. It belonged to John Gray, a homosexual poet who was said to be the inspiration for The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Watercolour on paper

Given by John Gray in memory of Andre Raffalovich 1934
Museum no. P.11-1934 []

Materials

Watercolour

Techniques

Watercolour drawing

Subjects depicted

Poets; Suicide

Categories

Gender and Sexuality

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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