Picture of the month

Gustave Moreau’s strange, dream-like 'Saint George and the Dragon' speaks of the spiritual over the material world

Saint George on his rearing white horse dominates the painting, his red lance plunging into the writhing dragon. Across the gorge, the princess sits upright, calmly praying for her safe rescue. A fairy-tale castle rises into the sky behind her.

Gustave Moreau, Saint George and the Dragon, 1889–90

Gustave Moreau, Saint George and the Dragon, 1889–90

Red, white, and gold dominate and unify this painting. Our eyes follow Saint George’s red lance diagonally down through the painting, from the red of his cape to the dragon’s blood. The knight’s horse rears upwards in the opposite direction – from left to right – giving the composition the form of a dynamic cross.

The saint’s golden halo and bejewelled armour glint through the strange misty light, as does the horse’s thickly painted, gold-encrusted harness. Moreau took his inspiration from Renaissance artists such as Crivelli, who used gold for mystical, not materialistic, purpose.

Moreau was a Symbolist painter, who believed that the inner life of the spirit and the imagination were all that mattered. Unlike the Impressionists who painted what they saw, his works explore the subconscious. Moreau’s paintings are haunting and imaginative but, at the same time, he stuck to certain conventions, prioritising history paintings that tell stories, placing emphasis on the human figure, exhibiting at the official Salon, and seeking official commissions.

Moreau’s paintings were popular with the circle of decadent writers in Paris, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans and, later they fascinated the Surrealists. Moreau’s most famous pupil was Matisse, who was inspired by the artist’s use of intoxicating, jewel-like colors, in his own, very different works. 

Gustave Moreau
Gustave Moreau: 'Saint George and the Dragon'