Gustave Moreau achieved enormous success at the official Paris Salon where he exhibited between 1852 and 1880. His academic training is evident in the importance of draughtsmanship in his compositions and in his characteristic figures with the their classical, ideal proportions. The enigmatic, mythological subjects that prevail in Moreau’s work are typical of the Symbolist movement of which he is considered the forerunner.
Galatea, whom the artist depicted on several occasions, is the principal figure in this work from Moreau’s final years. Her languid figure, reclining in the foreground, is set in a rocky landscape with lush, exotic vegetation. These plant forms are inspired by the marine plants that particularly fascinated Moreau. The cyclops Polyphemus, who has changed colour to match the dark, crepuscular setting, is depicted as a crouching giant observing Galatea from a distance. The brilliant pictorial surface and the richness of the textures derive from Moreau’s innovative method of applying the pigment and from the use of a combination of techniques.
The huge, muscular figure of the Cyclops Polyphemus, which blends in with the rocks of the grotto, holds Pan pipes and a sheepskin — the attributes of the shepherd Acis whom he has just killed out of jealousy. The three-eyed monster gazes at the young woman with a gesture of deep melancholy. The scene is also related to the theme of the Fairy and Griffon, which to Moreau embodied “the supreme and real beauty in that craggy, inaccessible grotto watched by griffons who shelter it from the fearsome attacks of the people.”
In the catalogue of the collection of Carmen and David Lloyd Kreeger, to whom the work belonged between 1965 and 1977, Charles W. Millard commented that the Galathea in particular was “characterised by the encrusted richness of color and texture that typify his work, making it apparent why Huysmans should have chosen him above all other artists to be admired by des Esseintes in Á Rebours” — or, in other words, that the decadence of the character Duke Jean de Floressas found its closest pictorial equivalent in the painting of Gustave Moreau.