Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Title: Saint George and the Dragon
Artist: Gustave Moreau
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 141 x 96.5 cm
Date: 1889-90
Location: National Gallery, London.


Saint George (c. 275 – April 303) was, according to tradition, a Roman soldier in the Guard of Diocletian, who is venerated as a Christian martyr. In hagiography Saint George is one of the most venerated saints as well as being the patron saint of several nations. The episode of Saint George and the Dragon is Eastern in origin, brought back with the Crusaders and retold. The city of Silene was terrorized by a dragon, and to appease the dragon the people fed it their children. One day the king's daughter was to be fed to the dragon, when, by chance, St George rode past, and subdued the dragon. So that the king and the people of Silene would convert, George slew the dragon. Remembering the unscrupulous freedom with which any wild story, even when pagan in origin, was appropriated by the early hagiographers to the honor of a popular saint, scholars are fairly safe in assuming that the Acts of St. George, though ancient in date and preserved to us (with endless variations) in many different languages, afford absolutely no indication at all for arriving at the saint's authentic history.

This late work is one of the Moreau’s rare completed oils. The design is based on a drawing that he had produced about twenty years earlier. The figures of the horse and the dragon are reminiscent of those of Raphael, but the painting is otherwise a more abstract and ornamental rendering of the legendary subject. The haloed figure of the saint recalls works of the early Renaissance that Moreau would have seen in Italy, notably those of Carpaccio and Crivelli. The figure of the princess with her hands folded in prayer in the right background, and the visionary Gothic castle in the distance, have been compared to those seen in eastern miniatures.

Gustave Moreau (April 1826 – April 1898) was a French Symbolist painter whose main emphasis was the illustration of biblical and mythological figures. He trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The work of Delacroix - and that of Theodore Chassériau, who was an admirer of Delacroix's and a friend of Moreau's - was a great influence on his development. He visited Italy and developed an interest in Byzantine art and the primitive Italian painters. Moreau sought to perpetuate the traditions of religious and mythological painting, at a time when naturalism was becoming increasingly dominant. Hostile criticism of his work caused him to exhibit only intermittently at the Salon, though later he was elected a member of the Academy. He also taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1892, winning the admiration of students, who included Matisse and Georges Rouault. He was a leading painter of the French Symbolist movement.

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