I confess I am lonely—
a solitary professor on sabbatical,
away from home and family.
Still, I’m happy here in Paris,
happy to spend the day
at the Gustave Moreau museum.
The painter turned his home
into a museum
opened after his death
and now I find myself wandering
the tiny rooms
thick with his furniture, books,
and object d’arts.
On every silk-covered wall
crowds of framed chalk sketches
reach up to the belle epoch
crown molding at the ceiling.
Tapestries, chairs with bouillon fringes,
chevron floors, cane patterns on chairs,
the china collection,
a bookcase with three busts on top,
a shelf with crammed with small white statues
and a host of black pitchers.
In his bedroom,
attached to his narrow single bed,
a chess table—
pawns, kings, and queens in position—
and another table awaiting its silver tray
with tea or wine.
Imagine living that way:
the things you love most,
always at the ready, visible to the eye.
Moreau knew the only way to master life
is to arrange and order it,
as one does in a museum.
Moreau added two floors atop his house—
the extravagant studio
with paneled walls and high ceilings
that now displays the grand canvases.
Moreau painted scenes from the Bible—
Moses Saved from the Water,
The Apparition of John the Baptist—
and mythic scenes the artist makes even stranger—
Ulysses on his voyage home,
Prometheus on the mountaintop,
a Thracian girl
carrying the head of Orpheus on his lyre.
Moreau illustrates familiar stories,
but I find nothing familiar in them.
They only mesmerize, like hallucinations,
and make me question
all I thought I knew.
In A Rebours
Huysmans astutely wrote
“Moreau was a pupil of no man,”
a painter “without provable ancestors,
without possible descendants.”
Perhaps I am imposing my own mind on it,
but standing in the painter’s empty studio,
I feel a sudden sympathy
for what I imagine to be
the artist’s loneliness, shyness, and introversion,
the inwardness of a private path
from which sprung
an irresistible and overpowering art.
Moreau loved a woman he called his “only friend,”
but never married.
He lived with and cared for his parents
until their deaths,
after which he remained alone.
Before his death,
Moreau arranged the museum
and hung his most ideal, most magical paintings
next to unfinished work,
outlines and sketches of would-be masterpieces,
the oil paint never to be applied
a reminder that life is fleeting
and every moment of utmost value,
that our days are numbered
and we will never finish
all the work we were put here to do.
I get a little dizzy
as I descend the winding staircase
down through the house with its tiny rooms
where Moreau lived his life.
At the bottom of the stairs,
I catch my breath,
wishing I could take his hand
and thank him.
By the front-door counter, books are sold.
I linger and read in the guidebook
precursor of symbolism and surrealism,
taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
This strangest of artists,
this painter of pure imagination and dreams,
this solitary soul who lived alone
with harrowing visions of Prometheus and Ulysses,
was also, the books says, a professor.
I cannot tell you
how gladdened I am,
how heartened and inspired I am in this,
the best moment of the day,
to know this seemingly lonely, haunted man
was much loved by his students,
were young Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault.