I read a lot of books during the first COVID lockdown in France. They were mostly fiction, as I often needed a break from reality at that particular point in history. But I did read The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White, and it quickly became one of my favourite books written about the city of light. Mostly because it gave me a whole new list of places to visit once the lockdown was over. One of the chapters went into depth about the history of the Musée National Gustave Moreau, and by the end of the chapter, that was the museum I was most excited about visiting. Over three years later, I finally made it. And it was more than worth the wait.
A Renowned Symbolist Painter
Gustave Moreau was a French painter and an important member of the Symbolist art movement of the late 19th century. He was incredibly prolific, producing over 15,000 works of art during his lifetime. He also had incredibly supportive parents, because they purchased an apartment in the 9e arrondissement when he was just 26, converted the top floors into studio space for their son, and the three of them lived there together for the rest of their lives.
Gustave Moreau was the final inhabitant, passing away in 1898, and he left behind a will that bequeathed the entirety of the apartment, studio, and his artworks to the state. Of course, this was on the condition that the building become a museum dedicated to himself and his art. As a result, the Musée National Gustave Moreau was officially inaugurated on January 14th, 1903, and it has remained more or less unchanged since then.
The Many Works of Gustave Moreau
In addition to being incredibly prolific, Gustave Moreau was also extremely reluctant to sell his work during his lifetime. This meant that at the time of his death, his estate contained thousands of pieces to populate his namesake museum. Today, the Musée National Gustave Moreau displays as many as possible, with over 7,000 more held in reserve. Which means you certainly get your money’s worth out of your admission ticket. It also means that every single possible surface of this museum is covered in art. Not that I’m complaining.
The first two floors of the building consist of the Moreau family apartment. As mentioned above, the museum has remained mostly unchanged since 1903, so there is certainly a homey and lived in feel to those rooms. They are filled with furniture and knick knacks belonging to the family, in addition to the abundance of artwork on the walls. And I couldn’t help but wonder as I used the facilities if this was the artist’s actual bathroom from the 19th century.
The top two floors are where Gustave Moreau had his studio space, and they are absolutely incredible. Massive ceilings. Wide open space. A stunningly beautiful wrought iron circular staircase connecting the two levels. After spending more than an hour on these floors, I completely understood why Moreau became increasing reclusive in his later years. I wouldn’t have wanted to leave those rooms either.
A Museum By and About An Artist
I should note that Edmund White didn’t have particularly complimentary things to say about the Musée National Gustave Moreau. He describes an abandoned and forgotten museum where the artwork is not very good. I’m no art expert, but I certainly don’t agree with those assessments. On the contrary, the Musée National Gustave Moreau is a fascinating visit, and the art is wonderfully eclectic. The subjects range from Biblical scenes and Greek mythology, to monkeys. Yes, really. Often in the same room. And some of Moreau’s most famous monumental paintings can be found here, including my personal favourite, Prometheus. The museum also has the distinction of being conceived by the artist himself, meaning he had a say in its conception and design prior to his death.
Gustave Moreau may not be the most famous or celebrated artist today. But he did leave behind an incredible artistic legacy for the city of Paris. If you want to spend a couple of hours simply surrounded by art, I highly recommend you check out the Musée National Gustave Moreau. As an added bonus, you can buy a combined ticket with the Musée National Jean-Jacques Henner, meaning you can visit both for less than five euros each. It’s one of the best deals in the city for museum lovers.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.