This powerful image is a variant of a larger painting in oil by Gustave Moreau in the National Gallery, London (fig. 1). The watercolour was executed in 1869, shortly before Moreau began the oil painting, which he abandoned before returning to it in 1889. The later work varied the composition of the watercolour slightly, by showing St. George spearing the dragon through the neck rather than the mouth, and showing the princess, visible in the upper right, in profile.
Moreau's oeuvre is characterised by an eclectic iconography, which often combines myth, religion and classical history, and by a vibrant, jewel-like palette which, in the artist's watercolours, results in images that have the intensity of a devotional painting. Here, the iconography is, by Moreau's standards, relatively straightforward, with the source for the horse and rider coming from Raphael's depiction of the same subject (Louvre, Paris), but reversed. Other sources included a sketch of the carved pala of the high altar in the Scuola dei Schiavoni, executed when Moreau was copying Carpaccio's Saint George and the Dragon on the ground floor, during a trip to Venice in 1858.
The watercolour has a dream-like, detached quality which is typical of the artist. The scene is absolutely devoid of human drama: the princess seems to float in the ether; the landscape of ravines and mountains seem lifted from a tale by Tolkien (an impression reinforced in the painting by the castle in the background); the dragon is shown in profile, almost static, with the frieze-like qualities of a renaissance mural; while the bejewelled horse, rearing up as if to take flight, appears more as Pegasus than a knight's charger. Dominating the composition, Saint George is depicted as a a mythical reinterpreatation of an angel slaying the devil. The allusion to a religious prototype is clear in the composition of the saint's billowing cape, which follows exactly the shape of an angel's wings, and by his androgynous features, while the blood red spear shines like a beam of divine light.
Marcel Proust, about the oil version of the compositon, wrote that the painting was "recognizable immediately as not being by an old master but by this man who, alone, when he painted his dreams, assembled these red draperies, these red vestments set with flowers and jewels...these narrow passes that make up the realm through which passes everything that he paints." (M. Proust, 'Notes sur le monde mystérieux de Gustave Moreau', in Contre Sainte-Beuve, Paris, 1971, p. 668)
We are grateful to Pierre-Louis Mathieu for confirming the authenticity of this work on the basis of a photograph.