A vivid demonstration of how Greek myths may appear today in unexpected ways was displayed in the Gustave Moreau exhibition at Waddesdon Manor, which took place between June and October 2021. The exhibition presented a series of Moreau’s watercolours, commissioned by Anthony Roux in 1879, illustrating the Fables of La Fontaine.
One of the fables (Book VI, Fable XX) describes Discord, the Greek goddess Eris, beginning with her ejection from Olympus for causing dispute among the gods with an apple. Embraced by humanity with open arms, she magnifies every small dispute, fanning each tiny spark into a conflagration. However, she has no fixed abode where she can be located in case she is needed, so she is assigned as her residence the house of Hymen (god of marriage).
Although most of La Fontaine’s stories are inspired by Aesop, this one has no origin in the Greek fabulist, but goes back to Homer, Hesiod, and Vergil. In Theogony Hesiod makes Eris the daughter of Night, and in Works and Days he famously describes two Erides: “One would be commended when perceived, the other is reprehensible […] The one promotes ugly fighting and conflict […] (The other) is good for mortals.” However, the main presence of Eris in Greek mythology is in the context of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, which culminated, after the Judgement of Paris, in the Trojan War. Thus, a connection with the wedding is already evident, but La Fontaine turns it into something amusing, involving human quarrels between married couples.
What did Gustave Moreau make of this story? Usually considered as the first French Symbolist painter, Moreau rejected the dominant artistic trends of his time in order to explore his own anxieties and longings by returning to the Greek myths. He had a solid education in the Classical world but followed an idiosyncratic path through the mythological tradition.
Claude Philips, as quoted in the Waddesdon Manor exhibition catalogue, describes Moreau’s Discord like this:
“A beautiful, snaked-crowned Fury, half lies, half reclines, in deceitful repose on the steps of a richly ornamented temple, her pallid form being set off with draperies of heavy poisonous green and fluid red, which add strong force and pathos to the design.”
Moreau follows La Fontaine in locating Discord at the temple of Hymen, under the statue of the god, and represents her as a beautiful woman who reclines with her eyes closed. She is partially naked, but her red cape, ornate micro-skirt, and the adornment on her legs and feet, suggest “oriental” glamour. Moreau repeatedly associates repose with female beauty and its contemplation, as in his renditions of Galatea, Delilah, Semele, and others; in his numerous paintings of Galatea, for instance, he usually represents her reclining, naked and enticing, exposed to her viewer Polyphemus. In the case of Discord, the snakes on her hair visually associate her with Medusa and also with the Furies. However, nothing in Moreau’s image of Discord evokes that degree of menace, and she even has something of innocence in her placid expression, perhaps reflecting a melancholic longing for her former life among the gods. The only hint of disharmony comes from the two Erotes flying away—perhaps frightened at the sight of her—and a third Eros lying dead on the floor, his torch beside him, as if the presence of Discord had resulted in the annihilation of Love. Paradoxically, in the distance Moreau has included a pair of lovers, seemingly unaware of the proximity of Discord.
Moreau’s Discord shares many features with one of the dominant themes of his art: the beautiful, passive, and distant woman, exposed to male view, a motif which he shares with the Pre-Raphaelites. Moreau has often been compared to Edward Burne-Jones, the painter associated with the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism, who saw Moreau’s watercolours of the fables when they were exhibited in Paris in 1886. Burne-Jones also represented Discord in his painting The Feast of Peleus as well as in the lower part of the Troy Triptych. But in these images, she is depicted as a sinister character with dark purple tunic and brown wings, while the gods look at her in fear. In spite of his connections with Burne-Jones, Moreau’s representation of Discord does not coincide with his, as the two artists have chosen different mythological moments and depict the goddess in completely different attitudes. Another striking contrast with Moreau’s peaceful image of the goddess can be seen in J.J. Grandville’s illustration of the same fable by La Fontaine, which shows an ugly and furious Discord next to a violently arguing matrimonial couple.
Moreau’s Discord departs from these and other, more traditional depictions: his image is more Moreau than Discord. It seems that only the defeated Eros reflects the destructive character of Discord and her impact on love and marriage.
Feature image: Altes Museum, via Wikimedia Commons