Diomedes devoured by his Horses (fig.1) was one of Moreau's entries to the Paris Salon of 1866. During the 1860s, Moreau's main focus was on compositions showing single, contemplative figures set in a landscape, such as Oedipus and the Sphinx, a work that firmly established his reputation at the 1864 Salon. Diomedes is therefore unusual for this decade of Moreau's work as he harks back to the violent action and complicated settings of his romantic works of the 1840s and 50s. However, it must have been a popular work as Moreau made at least five versions in oil and watercolor. Our work most likely dates between 1865 and 1870.
Gustave Duruflé, one of Moreau's most important patrons, was the original owner of our picture. He most likely commissioned Moreau to do a variant of the 1866 Salon painting. He owned several versions of Moreau's most famous compositions such as Prometheus, Oedipus and the Sphinx, and Hercules and the Hydra. Duruflé lent Diomedes to the important Moreau exhibition at Galerie Georges Petit in 1906, together with seven other works by the artist.
Like many artists, Moreau chose to depict a mythological subject for the 1866 Salon. His choice was the eighth labor of Hercules: the Mares of Diomedes. According to the myth, Hercules was ordered to capture the four savage mares of the Thracian King Diomedes. Feared by everyone who entered Diomedes' kingdom, the horses had been trained to feed on human flesh. Hercules was successful in completing his eighth labor - he captured Diomedes and as punishment fed him to his own horses. This is the moment Moreau chose to depict. The critic Ernest Chesneau wrote the following about the painting:
"With a subtly calculated refinement, the artist has contrived to imbue the horrible scene with all the cruelty and sense of pain that the subject could be made to bear. It was shrewd of him, one must admit, to have shown Diomedes being seized, not by the head or the breast, but by the wrist, a touch that gives an added suspense to the torture and heightens its dreadful barbarity. What a wincing there is, in consequence, of all the nervous and sensitive fibres of this body suspended by so thin an extremity! The arm bursts open like a pomegranate and the blood spurts in a flare of red under the tremendous teeth of these huge animals which Diomedes himself had fed on human flesh." (E. Chesneau, Les Nations rivales dans l'art, Paris, 1868, p.204).
While many artists made exact replicas of their Salon paintings, Moreau always chose to vary them, often turning the subject around. This is certainly the case with all of his known depictions of Diomedes. In 1990, a new version of Diomedes was discovered rolled at the Musée Gustave Moreau (see Revue du Louvre, July 1991, p.75). This large-scale, unfinished canvas showed Diomedes in a horizontal position on the ground with the savage horses behind him. This version of Diomedes was an important work for Moreau as it was included on his list of paintings for a major exhibition he was planning before his death, a show that was never held as Moreau instead decided to bequeath his Paris studio and all of its contents to the State as a museum. Our painting is very close to the known watercolor version which was sold by Brame in 1869 (see sale catalogue, Hotel Drouot, Paris, Nov. 23, 1992, no. 24 and cover). However in the watercolor, Diomedes is shown with his head tilted back in profile. There is also a column in the center of the composition, and Hercules is clearly revealed resting against it. Our painting is the only version to show Diomedes straight on, and not in profile. As in all of the versions, Moreau encircles the evil King with the sculpturesque forms of the horses, whose obvious ancestors are the equine beasts of Gericault and Delacroix, two artists Moreau greatly admired. In fact, Pierre Mathieu makes a direct comparison between Delacroix's Arab Horses fighting in a Stable and the horses in Moreau's Diomedes (see P. Mathieu, p. 96). The figure of Hercules is barely visible in our painting; he is seen seated in the shadows of the architecture directly above the scene of carnage. The allusions to death (corpses, skulls and vultures) that are so evident in the Salon painting become mere suggestions in our version, however, Moreau has kept the subtle addition of the crown of King Diomedes that has toppled to the ground - a further sign of the doomed king.
We are grateful to Pierre Louis Mathieu for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.