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The mystical world of Gustave Moreau has remained enclosed behind the heavy curtains of his hôtel particulier since his death in 1898.
Never marrying and living with his parents until they passed away, the father figure of the Symbolist movement was terrified by the idea that the 14,000 works he had produced, sumptuously framed, and thoroughly arranged on his walls would be scattered away.
To protect and preserve his oeuvre, he decided to bequeath his house and everything in it to the State, on the condition that everything remained as he left it.
That makes the Musée Gustave Moreau the only museum in Paris entirely conceived by its own subject.
It’s a singular experience to enter the intimacy of such a great figure of Art History. Visiting the museum has had a strong impact on generations upon generations of artists. Fin de siècle writer Karl-Joris Huysmans was fascinated by this “mystic man shut up at the very center of Paris.” André Breton — the leader of the Surrealist movement — declared that Moreau’s works would forever influence the way he loved, and he also dreamt of spending a night alone in the museum. Marcel Proust — the voice of melancholia — talked about it in many of his letters.
It’s quite impressive to pass through the private apartments of the artist — a succession of small rooms, overflown by Moreau’s own drawings and paintings — before entering the spectacular two-story studio. The world-famous stairs alone are worth the trip, but the display of large scale paintings, overloaded with details and symbols, hung one above the other from the floor to the ceiling, are also sure to leave you with an imperishable souvenir.
You might spend hours looking at every painting, learning about all the mythical female figures Moreau painted again and again — Messalina, the scandalous roman empress, Medea, who killed her brother, her rival and her children, Salome, who demanded the head of Saint John the Baptist, and so on.
You might wonder about this obsession with dangerous women, searching for answers in the many details and symbols hidden in the paintings, or simply appreciate mastery of the artist, who was strongly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and the Romantic movement and widely inspired by the exotic imagery in fashion during the 19th century.
Even if you’re not interested in Mysticism or Symbolism, a visit to this unique Parisian museum is an experience worth living. It’s a fantastic journey into the mind of an eminent representative of the tormented and extravagant fin de siècle aesthetic, one whose legacy still survives today!
The museum is open every day except Tuesday, from 10am to 6pm (last entrance at 5pm). Admission is 7€ for adults and free for EU members under 26, or non-EU members under 18.
Urbansider Tip: See another extraordinary, intimate Paris art museum and save a few euros by purchasing a combined ticket for the Musée Gustave Moreau and the Musée National Jacques Henner for 9€.