Based on a complex iconography mined from the religion and myth of the Orient, this extraordinary watercolour exhibits all the jewel-like qualities for which Gustave Moreau is best known. The artist depicts a Peri - in Persian mythology a fairy formed of fire, usually represented as a beautiful woman - rising up above a moonlit Eden-like landscape atop a dragon, and wearing the clothing of a Hindu divinity. She holds in her hand a lotus flower, a giant specimen which dominates the composition below her, while in the background, the cupola of a mosque blends seamlessly with the surrounding waters and mountains.
Moreau frequently created fantastical images based on the juxtaposition of imagery from completely different sources. He was particularly fascinated by Hindu traditions, and went as far as to apply Indian costume to clothe Salome in his masterpiece, Salome dancing before Herod (fig. 1). In both the latter and present works, Moreau depicts his subjects in similar dress and jewellery, wearing a serene expression, and holding a stylised lotus flower. Both of Moreau's beauties symbolise woman's power over man, but in one case he conjurs an image of malevolent seduction, in the other of ethereal brilliance and poetic inspiration. Indeed, while Peris were usually symbols of beauty, in early Persian mythology they were also considered as evil enchantresses, descended from fallen angels - a metaphor consistent with the traditional western interpretation of Herod's daughter.
The lotus flower is also used ambiguously in this image. Essentially a symbol of purity, in Buddhism the flower symbolises love and compassion, and in Hindu mythology it is an emblem of resurrection. Essentially, Moreau's Peri is a poetical incarnation of the Orient, symbolising purity, mystery and splendour, created from an eclectic variety of sources. Even the flowers were based on an image from an 1838 edition of Le Magasin pittoresque, one of the most popular illustrated magazines of its time, and for Moreau a favourite source of Eastern imagery from Egypt and Persia, to India and Japan.
As Amina Okada writes of a similar version of this work: 'One thinks of the depictions of the God Vishna straddling his mount, or of the mythical bird Garuda; indeed numerous Indian miniatures - which the artist had seen in the Bibliothèque Nationale of the Imperial Library - show the god on the back of his mount, holding a lotus flower in one of his four hands - just like Moreau's fairy.'(exh. cat., L'Inde de Gustave Moreau, Paris, musée Cernuschi, 1997, p. 136).
Moreau treated the present subject in several drawings (fig. 2) and two other watercolours, while an enamel copy of the present work was commissioned by the jewellers Bapst & Falize from the enamellers Paul Grandhomme and Alfred Garnier (fig. 3) for their client Sergei Shchukin, one of Russia's most celebrated art collectors at the turn of the 20th century. Shchukin wrote in his memoirs of this commission: 'Finding myself in Paris in 1889, while attending the Exposition Universelle I met the famous jewellers Bapst and Falize. First I ordered from them a small enamelled gold plate, and then, as a pendant, I ordered another. The first miniature was created by the enameller Grandhomme, after a watercolour by Gustave Moreau representing La Péri; the second was the work of the same enameller, but this time represented the allegorical figure of a Chimera. These two miniatures, which cost me 2500 francs apiece, were perfectly executed before coming to enrich my picture gallery.' (quoted in 'Les fruits de l'exposition Gustave Moreau ou Gustave Moreau et l'Europe', op. cit, p. 88).
Of the same encounter, a letter in the archives of the musée Gustave Moreau, signed by Grandhomme and Garnier and dated 15th December 1889, records:
We had the honour of stopping by to see you, but were told that you were travelling. We came to seek your advice on an enamel that we had just completed for Monsieur Falize. It is Monsieur Hayem who was kind enough to lend us the model for your work, which represents a woman led away by a dragon, with a moon in the sky, full of magic and fantasy.'
Shchukin was not the only person on whom Moreau's Peris left a powerful impression. Edmond de Goncourt wrote of them in his journal in 1881: 'Curious indeed, these watercolours of Gustave Moreau, the watercolours of a poet goldsmith, which seem to have been washed with the gleams and patina of the treasures in the Thousand and One Nights'. (quoted in P.L Mathieu, Gustave Moreau, Oxford, 1977, p. 158).