Gustave Moreau was a leading figure in the French Symbolist movement. He completed this painting in 1889, although he began working on it many years earlier.
The story of Saint George and the dragon had long been popular with artists, and the painting shows Moreau’s awareness of earlier images of the saint and his eclectic range of sources. Moreau not only looked to Italian Renaissance artists, such as Raphael and Carpaccio, but was also influenced by Byzantine (Eastern Christian) art, particularly icon painting, and by Indian and Persian miniatures.
Moreau has depicted Saint George as a slender youth rather than a mature man, his long flowing hair further enhancing his already androgynous appearance. Although a warrior, his Saint George is also a figure of spiritual purity who, in killing the dragon to rescue a princess, is perhaps also vanquishing crude animal appetites.
Gustave Moreau was a leading figure in the French Symbolist movement. As he worked primarily in watercolours, oil paintings by him, such as this one, are rare.
The story of Saint George and the dragon had long been popular with artists, and Moreau’s painting shows his awareness of earlier examples and his eclectic range of sources. The picture’s composition relates to a small painting of the same subject by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, which is in the Louvre, Paris. Raphael’s Saint George was the source for the white horse and for the figure of Saint George wearing a helmet and armour, with his cape fluttering behind him.
But Moreau also looked to earlier examples of Italian art. From 1857 to 1859 he had lived in Italy, where he copied Byzantine and pre-Renaissance art, as well as Renaissance works. The ornamental trappings of the horse, Saint George’s halo and the jewel-encrusted crown of the princess, who sits praying high on a rock, recall the highly detailed Late Gothic style of Crivelli. Moreau also studied and copied Carpaccio’s series of murals, dating from 1502 to 1507, in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice, which illustrate stories of the saints, including the legend of Saint George. The princess, who wears a patterned cloak similar in design to a Middle Eastern carpet, introduces an element of exoticism to the picture and also shows Moreau’s awareness of Indian and Persian miniatures. Behind her, a ‘Moorish’ castle with a domed tower seems to emerge from the mountaintop. The tall craggy outcrops that fill the background recall imaginary landscapes painted by Leonardo da Vinci, such as his ‘Virgin of the Rocks’.
Moreau’s references to early Renaissance painting give a heraldic quality to his own depiction of Saint George. The picture’s strong design, its emphasis on outline rather than perspectival depth, and Saint George’s gold halo are also characteristics of icon paintings – which frequently depict him battling the dragon. This association with icon painting reinforces Saint George’s saintliness. For although a warrior-saint, Moreau’s Saint George is a slender youth rather than a mature man, his long flowing hair further enhancing his already androgynous appearance. In the legend of Saint George, the saint slays the dragon, which demands human sacrifices, in order to save the princess, its next victim. Mounted on his white steed, this Saint George is also a figure of spiritual purity who, in killing the dragon, is perhaps also vanquishing crude animal appetites.
The painting was completed in 1889 and was purchased for 9,000 francs directly from Moreau by Louis Mante, a shipowner and art collector based in Marseilles. However, Moreau may have begun the painting much earlier, as it was included in a plan of his studio that was perhaps drawn up around 1870. The painting, particularly in its early stages (as revealed by X-ray images), also relates to an earlier watercolour (now in a private collection in Stuttgart) that dates from around 1869. In addition, there are five preparatory drawings for the composition in the Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris.
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