This work is by far the most ambitious and worked up version of a subject painted several times in watercolour by Gustave Moreau and which, despite its nominal subject, conflates into a single ravishing image the artist's eclectic ideas on womanhood and the feminine ideal.
Moreau's Helen appears as a languorous embodiment of beauty, rising heavenward above the smaller male figures in thrall at her side. The subject was treated several times by the artist depicting scenes from Homer's Iliad, in which Helen is typically depicted on the walls of Troy, presiding over the victims of the war fought in her name (fig. 1). In such works, 'woman represents the forces of destruction and chaos. She is the "unconscious", lacking thought and an "inner sensibility"; an "animal nature", at once "vegetal and bestial", driven by "unsatisfied desire" for the fulfillment of which she is ready to "trample everything underfoot." Hence she is naturally "fatal". In her most primal incarnation, she is the overtly monstrous Lernaean Hydra; as Salome she is the eternal femme fatale who threatens, Moreau wrote, "even geniuses and saints".'(Douglas Druick, quoted in exh. cat., Chicago & New York, 1999, op. cit., p. 37).
In this work, Helen is depicted as equally fatal, but less malevolent than in other pictorial incarnations by Moreau, a mysterious enchantress who captures all mankind in her spell. She fits the same mould as the sea-nymph Galatea, also painted by Moreau, who bewitched the Cyclops with her charms. The subject is taken from the rarely-read second part of Goethe's Faust which, requiring an extensive knowledge of Greek mythology to decipher, is typical of the type of complex iconography used by Moreau. In the play, Faust, commanded by Mephisto to bring him the archetype of beauty, summons the spirit of Helen from Hades. Falling himself in love with Helen, Faust fathers her winged child Euphorion, who charms all with his beauty and gift for music before dying young and calling his mother back with him to Hades. She is represented in the present work surrounded and glorified by her eternal admirers, the warrior on the left, the poet and king on the right, and her son at her feet. A variant of the composition, less worked up, is in the Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris (fig. 2).
The complexity of the literal iconography notwithstanding, this mature work also draws upon a multitude of other sources for its imagery, which come together in a work that stands as one of the very best examples of Moreau's unique strand of Symbolism. The composition combines aspects of the Virgin's Assumption with apparently explicit references to Botticelli's Birth of Venus (fig. 3), such as the figure's pose and the cape billowing in the background. Meanwhile the lotus flower that Helen holds in her hand is a traditional Buddhist symbol of purity and divine birth. These various elements are held together in a strongly vertical composition, the smaller figures and their bejewelled, flowing accessories, echoing those of Helen. There are other symbols in the work, but trying to fathom the meaning of each is to miss the effect of the whole, for they principally serve as accessories to re-inforce a dominant, symbolic idea, which achieve their full effect only with extraordinary refinements of colouring and texture.
Indeed, for besides its size and exceptional state of conservation, the strength of the overall image of Hélène glorifiée derives in large part from its intense and shimmering colour, and from a technique in which the gouache is applied with the thickness of oil paint, giving the work a depth and richness rarely seen in works in this medium. For example, the paint used to describe Helen's long cloak has been combed through while wet with long, single filament brushstrokes, creating the finely ridged texture of combed hair, and turning her garment into an iridescent extension of the golden plaits drooping off her shoulders. Meanwhile the starry orbs at the lower left and upper right of the composition are described in globs of paint which stand several millimetres proud of the paper surface, surrounded by rays of shell gold.
Moreau's use of gold in this work is telling, both with regard to the importance he placed on the commission, and his abilities as a superb draftsman and watercolourist. An expensive product (so named because it was historically made and stored in a shallow shell such as a clamshell), shell gold consists of powdered gold leaf mixed with gum arabic usually used, as here, to describe rays and small highlights. Difficult to use effectively, the medium was traditionally used in icons and illuminated manuscripts. It is no coincidence that it is to these type of devotional traditions in art that Moreau's literally jewel-like creations are often compared. Here the deep blues, set off with gold and a blaze of iridiscent colours, are set off against motifs with strong religious overtones, to create an image of immense expressive force which rises far beyond the kind of hazy mysticsm so prevalent in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Commissioned by the comtesse Grefullhe, who hung it in pride of place in her living room, this watercolour was so successful that Moreau intended to develop it into a much larger canvas, the oil sketch for which is in the Musée Gustave Moreau. The countess led one of the most influential literary salons in Paris; one of the artist's leading champions, she was one of the key inspirations for the character of the duchesse de Guermantes in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.