Gustave Moreau spent the early part of his career obsessed with the ideas of Romanticism, believing that art was intended for the presentation of the beautiful as a perfect combination of ideas and form. Throughout his life Moreau struggled to elevate his paintings to the level of an unapproachable ideal. Moreau deplored the salons that so strongly dictated artistic styles and tastes, yet Moreau never strictly abandoned the themes and motifs that were the stock-in-trade of the Salon painter. Much of Moreau paintings are illustrative, depicting the mystic idealisms prevalent at the time or concerned with the Romantic thematics of women-Helen, Delilah, Circe, Salome-as bewitchers or wily temptresses of men. From this particular perspective, the ideal of purity was inevitably opposed to sex and sensuousness. Women were equated with nature-a mindless force of impurity - while men, on the other hand, were elevated to the status of Artist-who must wrestle with this force and emerge transcendent, at one with all that is beautiful in human experience. The themes prevalent in Moreau paintings were continually reworked, sometimes thirty years after they were begun, and it is therefore difficult to establish a chronology of his painting.
However, in the Salon of 1876, one of Moreau’s versions of "Salome," the painting "Hercules" and the "Hydra of Leme", electrified the audiences and established the style by which Moreau came to be known to the public. The artist was, by this time, fifty years old. The criticism often expressed a strong ambition for allegory. It was these allusions to unconscious desires and dreams that were, however, to establish him as a forerunner to the Surrealists. Even more important in terms of twentieth-century art than he is to 19th Century models, Moreau created a private oeuvre that he kept to himself and exhibited only to a few close friends and students. In these Moreau created a new aesthetic that included remarkable textures and strong colorations close to an abstract style. At the end of his life, in 1892, Moreau became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he proved a gifted teacher. Among his devoted pupils were Rouault and Matisse. Moreau believed of his teaching that: "I am the bridge over which certain of you will pass." His teaching indeed proved inspirational, not only to the next generation, but to the Surrealists that followed.