Drawn circa 1881, this beautiful watercolour, Le lion amoureaux is a variant of the smaller watercolour of the same title. The smaller work was executed in 1879 for the Marseille collector, Antoni Roux. Roux commissioned a group of the greatest artists of the time, including Gustave Moreau, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Henri Gervex and Gustave Doré to illustrate La Fontaine’s Fables and showcase the revival of watercolour as a medium. When Antoni Roux held the first public exhibition of 150 watercolours in 1881, the critics unanimously recognised the superiority of Moreau’s work (Pierre-Louis Mathieu, Gustave Moreau : L'assembleur de rêves, Paris, 1998, p. 112). It was in response to this exhibition that Charles Blanc wrote ‘One would have to coin a word for the occasion if one wished to characterise the talent of Gustave Moreau, the work colourism for example, which would well convey all that is excessive, superb and prodigious in his love for colour. His watercolours for the Fables of La Fontaine make all the others look dim beside him. It is as if one were in the presence of an illuminant artist who had been a jeweller before becoming a painter, and who, having yielded to the intoxication of colour, had ground rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, opals, pearls and mother of pearl to make up his palette’ (C. Blank, Le Temps, 5 May 1881). This is certainly true of the present work, which is enriched by a palette of rich ruby and emerald pigments glimmering throughout the mythological subject.
On the basis of such praise, Roux commissioned Moreau to create images for 39 more fables, which featured more animals. In a letter to Roux in September 1881, Moreau records waking at 5:30 am to visit the Jardin des Plantes to observe live animals in person, to make more accurate renderings of Lions, Elephants, Deer, Chamois, Horses, Jaguars, Leopards, Peacocks, Rhinos and Tigers from nature.
The watercolours were exhibited in 1886 in Paris and London. Moreau’s biographer, Pierre-louis Mathieu, describes the series as a “splendid suite of an artist at the height of his talent” (ibid., p. 116).
Fontaine’s Fable of the Lion in Love tells the story of a Lion who is enamoured by a shepherdess. Seeking her father’s blessing for marriage, the father agrees on the condition that the lion files down his teeth and claws. The Lion gives consent to this deal immediately; an act made under the influence of love which leaves him weakened. La Fontaine closes this fable with the sentiment “O love, O love, mastered by you,/ prudence we well may bid adieu".
Sketches for Le lion amoureux are held in the Musée Gustave Moreau (Figs. 1-3) which show Moreau’s artistic process in forming the colour palette and composition for this work. Moreau would revisit this composition when later painting La Licorne in 1884-5. In both works he depicts a woman wearing a dark red, sumptuous cape draped over her shoulders and a wide Renaissance beret, in a style similar to the goddesses painted by the Early Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach.