Gustave Moreau: The Fables at Waddesdon Manor

A new exhibition opens today at Waddesdon Manor featuring 35 exotic watercolours seen in public for the first time in over one hundred years. The works were created by Gustave Moreau, one of the most influential artists of the French Symbolist movement, between 1879 and 1885.

Moreau made 64 works for a series commissioned by the art collector Antony Roux to illustrate the 17th-century Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. The fables draw on Aesop’s fables, as well as traditional European and Asian stories that echo from my childhood when books offered a window on a colourful, fascinating and wildly exciting world that captured my imagination, a magical sensibility that has lasted into adulthood.

The Frogs who Ask for a King (1884), Gustave Moreau. Watercolour, gouache, graphite and red chalk © Private Rothschild Collection/Jean-Yves Lacôte.

Moreau’s watercolours were exhibited to great acclaim in the 1880s in both Paris and in London. His paintings were frequently compared to the British artist, Edward Burne-Jones, although there are few works by Moreau in British public collections.

Discord, Gustave Moreau (1880). Watercolour, gouache, graphite, brown ink and wash © Private Rothschild Collection/Jean-Yves Lacôte

“I could pore over them for hours, losing myself in the depth of romanticism and imagination as I did with childhood books illustrated by Arthur Rackham, Edward Lear, and others.” hashtagtravelling.com


Created at the height of the French 19th-century revival of watercolour only a handful has ever been published in colour. The subject matter, wildlife, exotic Arabian and Orientalist settings, fairytale characters and worlds, comprise a jewel-like quality. They hint at sorcerers and witches, of adventure and travel. The stories they tell, whether comedy, tragedy or satire, engender the unlimited possibilities and delights of travel, both in reality and in the mind.

Many of the moral elements of the fables of comedy, satire and tragedy, resonate in today’s culture. The Animals Stricken with the Plague, Gustave Moreau (1883). Watercolour, gouache, graphite, and red chalk © Private Rothschild Collection/Jean
Yves Lacôte.

The influence of earlier artists is evident in the fable watercolours, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Turner, Delacroix, Gericault and the celebrated Japanese artist, Hokusai. The stylistic range and complexity of Moreau’s work, the lines and the detail are exquisite and I could pore over them for hours, losing myself in the depth of romanticism and imagination as I did with childhood books illustrated by Arthur Rackham, Edward Lear, and others.

An early comment on Moreau read, here ‘was a jeweller before he was a painter and who, drunk on colour, had ground up rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, pearls and mother-of-pearl to make his palette.’ The Town Rat and the Country Rat , Gustave Moreau (1881). Watercolour, gouache, graphite and red chalk © Private Rothschild Collection/Jean Yves Lacôte.

British critics in the 1880s praised the series; one described the works as full of ‘witchery and enchantment’; another commented on Moreau’s ‘keen apprehension of the weird’.

The Monkey and the Dolphin, (1879-80) Gustave Moreau. Watercolour, gouache, pen and ink, ink and wash, graphite © Private RothschildCollection/Jean-Yves Lacôte.

The works in the exhibition are on loan from the Rothschild family collections. Of 63 of the 64 works in the collection of Miriam Alexandrine de Rothschild (1884-1965), nearly half were lost during the Nazi era.

Musée Gustave Moreau is home to more than 25,000 works by Moreau, as well as all the preparatory drawings for the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, and watercolour, The Peacock Complaining to Juno, given to the museum in 1936 by Miriam Alexandrine de Rothschild.

Gustave Moreau: The Fables is curated by Dr Juliet Carey, Senior Curator Waddesdon. A book of the same name by Juliet Carey is published by Paul Holberton £25.Hardback, 160 pages, 100 colour illustrations, ISBN: 978-1-911300-86-1.

Gustave Moreau: The Fables runs until 17 October 2021. www.waddesdon.org.uk A version of the exhibition is scheduled to open at the Musée National Gustave Moreau, located in the painter’s family home in Paris, later in 2021. www.en.musee-moreau.fr


As always please check the www.gov.co.uk for the latest on domestic and international travel guidelines.

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