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Gallery Text

Important precursors of symbolism include Gustave Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and Rodolphe Bresdin: three artists with a shared nostalgia for a mythical past. Moreau created highly wrought, sensual interpretations of mythical and religious scenes. He repeatedly depicted the sea nymph Galatea, whose story, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, warns of the nefarious effects of beauty. Rejected by Galatea, a jealous Cyclops named Polyphemus ends up killing Acis, the sea nymph’s lover, by crushing him under a rock. In Moreau’s picture, sexual desire is expressed with remarkable intensity in the monster’s lustful gaze, fixed on the sleeping nude. There is a stark contrast between his rough ugliness and the luminous beauty of Galatea’s quasi-divine body, displayed within a surreal landscape. By favoring contemplative stillness and ornamental quality over narration, Moreau emphasizes the symbolic nature of his drawing.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Gustave Moreau, French (Paris 1826 - 1898 Paris)
Work Type
Physical Descriptions
Gouache on wove paper
actual: 39.5 x 25.7 cm (15 9/16 x 10 1/8 in.)
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

Georges Rouault, Gustav Moreau, L'Art et les Artistes (April 1926), vol. 11-12, pp. 219-249, p. 235, repr.

Hans H. Hofstätter, Gustave Moreau: Leben und Werk, DuMont Buchverlag (Cologne, 1978), pp. 87-89 + 180, repr. p. 89

Pierre-Louis Mathieu, Gustave Moreau: Monographie et nouveau catalogue de l'oeuvre achevé, ACR Édition (Paris, France, 1998), no. 459, repr., also repr. p. 188 (color)

Exhibition History

The Age of Romanticism, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, 03/15/1986 - 05/18/1986

Flowers of Evil: Symbolist Drawings, 1870–1910, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 05/21/2016 - 08/14/2016

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of European and American Art at am_europeanamerican@harvard.edu