Details
GUSTAVE MOREAU (FRENCH, 1826-1898)
La mort de Sapho
signed '-Gustave. Moreau-' (lower right); titled, indistinctly dedicated and signed '_Sapho_ à Monsieur Laniel_/-Gustave Moreau-' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
32 x 24 1/2 in. (81.3 x 62.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1872
Provenance
The artist.
Mr. Laniel, acquired directly from the above, January 1874.
(possibly) Émile Straus, (1844-1929), Paris.
Robert Esnault-Pelterie (1881-1957), Paris, by 1906.
Alphonse Willems (1839-1912), Brussels.
His sale; Galerie J. & A. Le Roy Frères, Paris, 12 May 1921, no. 37.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 14 June 1995, lot 21, as The Death of Sappho.
Acquired by Ann and Gordon Getty from the above.
Literature
(Probably) A. Baillehache-Lamotte, Nouveau catalogue de l'œuvre de Gustave Moreau remis à jour en 1915, Paris, p. 62, catalogue raisonné manuscript.
P. L. Mathieu, Gustave Moreau, sa vie, son oeuvre, catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre achevé, Paris, 1976, p. 312, no. 140, illustrated.
P. L. Mathieu, Complete Edition of the Finished Paintings, Watercolours, and Drawings, Oxford, 1977, p. 319, no. 140, illustrated, as The Death of Sappho.
P. L. Mathieu, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Gustave Moreau, Les Classiques de l'Art, Paris, 1991, p. 95, no. 164, illustrated.
P. L. Mathieu, Gustave Moreau: The Assembler of Dreams 1826-1898, Paris, 2010, p. 89, illustrated, as Sappho.
Exhibited
(possibly) Paris, Galerie George Petit, Exposition Gustave Moreau, 1906, no. 53.
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Gustave Moreau, Between Epic and Dream, 29 September 1998-4 January 1999, p. 129, no. 55, illustrated, as The Death of Sappho.

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Lot Essay

Although Gustave Moreau's training at the École des beaux-arts was deeply rooted in the academic tradition, he quickly distinguished himself as perhaps the most innovative and visionary artist of the late 19th century. Fusing ideas from both the Romantic and Symbolist movements, Moreau’s distinctive painting style sought to express what the artist described as a 'new type of beauty,' drawing on subjects inspired by the past and translated through the unique lens of the artist’s imagination. Through works noted for their jewel-like tonality, rich, Byzantine-inspired textures, and fusion of Eastern and Western motifs, Moreau crafted a fantastic, intricate style of painting which is unmistakably his own.
For artists like Moreau, the poetess Sappho was the perfect vehicle through which to express ideas about unrequited love, feminine beauty, music and the creation of art, and scenes from her life were popular among the Symbolist painters in France in the later part of the 19th century. Along with fellow poets Orpheus and Tyrtaeus, Sappho in particular appears to have been a source of unrelenting fascination for Moreau, and he returned to the subject on numerous occasions over the course of his career, first treating the subject in 1846, the year he entered the École des beaux-arts, and for the last time in 1897, the year before his death. His examination of the subject truly began in earnest around 1866, when Sappho appears regularly in his drawings, most frequently in images which take as their subject her ‘mythic’ suicide.
Though many details of her life have not been well preserved by history, Sappho was born in the 7th century BC and lived in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Only a very small portion of her writings survive today but her reputation in Antiquity rivaled that of Homer, and Plato referred to her as ‘the Tenth Muse.’ Lesbos was known in Antiquity as a place where women often congregated and shared poetry, and this, in combination with the erotic content of Sappho's few remaining verses, has given rise to the idea that her interest in women may have been sexual in nature. Her death, however, challenges this interpretation - having fallen in love with the ferryman Phaon, Sappho threw herself off the cliffs of Leucate in despair over the pain of her unrequited love. Through these different aspects of her story the poetess thus became a subject for Moreau which blended multidimensional ideas of poetry, sexuality, and death, the most important recurring themes within his oeuvre. Pierre Matthieu recorded three other versions of the Death of Sappho in his catalogue raisonné of Moreau’s work, but of them, the present work is by far the largest, and it is an exceptionally rare example of Moreau’s oil painting on this scale remaining in private hands.
Moreau’s interpretation in the present work is unique, in that he was one of the first painters to depict the dead body of the poetess, rather than hewing to the more common imagery of her atop a cliff, resolute in her decision to end her life. This is almost certainly a reflection of Moreau’s own emotional state during the early years of the 1870s when the present work was painted. Unlike many artists who fled Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, Morreau had remained in the city and witnessed the horrors of the War, the Siege of Paris, the sudden fall of the Second Empire, the violence of the Paris Commune and its bloody repression firsthand. An extremely patriotic man, Moreau was deeply shaken by both the speed and brutality of modern warfare and by the savage inhumanity that he felt had lain waste to his ‘noble France,’ and went several years in this period without painting anything at all. It is perhaps no surprise then to see this newly corporeal interpretation of Sappho’s death emerge in the years immediately following this dark period in the artist’s own life. Minimizing the figure within the craggy, desolate landscape, an idea taken from the Romantic painters, further underscores this expression of the fragility of human life. And yet, the inclusion of beautifully detailed lyre at the poetess’s side may reflect a more hopeful aspect of the artist’s depiction. Moreau regularly likened the creation of paintings to the creation of poetry and the inclusion of the lyre may be a symbol which serves as a reminder of the importance of the artist’s creative impulse, even in the face of death.
Of the poetess, Moreau wrote: 'For my Sappho, I seek the sacred character of a poetic princess. I therefore fashion her dress so as to invoke to the mind the idea of grace, severity, and above all that variety which is the greatest quality of the poet: inspiration. I cover this dress with flowers, birds, and all the objects of creation that reflect themselves in the mind of the poet' (Gustave Moreau, L'Assembleur de rêves: Ecrits complets de Gustave Moreau, Paris, p. 124). In fact, Moreau’s inspiration for the patterning on the poet’s dress in the present work, featuring bright blue flowers on a vibrant red ground, was Japanese in origin, taken from a book the artist acquired in the late 1860s entitled Grand Japon. The skill and ease with which Moreau incorporated this Japanese textile into the story of Sappho reflects an important facet of Moreau’s mature style, which regularly saw the artist merging Eastern and Western motifs.
In this combination of influences from East and West, and in the work’s truly extraordinary quality, The Death of Sappho is a perfect reflection of the Getty collection. Hung in the living room, the vibrant red of the poet’s dress was in dialog across the room with the striking red costume in Jacques-Émile Blanche’s masterful portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky, which similarly draws on both Eastern and Western culture. Placed above a chest of drawers decorated with Japanese motifs, the work also reflected Ann Getty’s unparalleled ability to create brilliantly layered interior decoration in which an erudite viewer can always find new and interesting points of comparison, dialogue, and interplay. This same idea of building a work of art by using a deeply personal point of view to interpret and juxtapose complex ideas in order to create a luxurious, intelligent and seamless whole is central to both Moreau’s art and Ann Getty’s own design aesthetic.
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