A lasting impression: George Moore in France
The writer left the country he loathed when he was 18 to move to Paris, and became a key figure in the city’s artistic community
George Moore (1852-1933) by Édouard Manet
A photograph of the Cafe Nouvelle Athènes, where Moore spent a lot of time, circa 1900
The Absinthe Drinker by Degas, which depicts the Cafe Nouvelle Athènes
The Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933) said Paris was his “Oxford and Cambridge”. Although he inhabited the French capital for only seven years, from 1873 until 1880, Paris was the city where Moore created himself.
Moore inherited his family’s estate in Co Mayo at the age of 18. On reaching majority three years later, he entrusted the estate to his brother Maurice and moved to Paris, with the intention of becoming a painter.
Moore initially sought out the establishment painter Alexandre Cabanel, whose frothy Birth of Venus, now in the Orsay museum, was purchased by Napoleon III at the Salon of 1863. Émile Zola, who would become a father figure to Moore, mocked the painting: “The goddess, drowned in a sea of milk, resembles a delicious courtesan, but not of flesh and blood – that would be indecent – but made of a sort of pink and white marzipan.”
Gifted with a flair for the avant-garde, Moore turned his back on the Académie des Beaux-Arts to join the nascent Impressionist movement. He then abandoned the paintbrush for the pen to become the leading propagandist for French Impressionism and literary realism in the English-speaking world.
“If you were looking for someone to defend the cause of French culture, you would not expect a member of the landed gentry from Co Mayo; it was most unlikely,” says David Rose, a retired literature professor from Goldsmiths, University of London, now president of the Société Oscar Wilde in Paris. “Wilde too promoted French literature, but for him it was a form of self-promotion. With Moore, it was a genuine commitment.”
Rose was attending George Moore’s Paris and His Ongoing French Connections, a three-day conference at the Irish College in early October. This was the sixth international Moore conference since 2005. A seventh will be held at the Princess Grace Library in Monaco next year.
Adrian Frazier’s biography of Moore is the bible of Moore scholars. The professor from NUI Galway wrote that Moore never gained the recognition he deserved because “he had no clear affiliation during his life with any single national tradition; no country has wished to claim him . . . By turns, he was treated as too sexy and French, or too rebellious and Irish.”
Moore was, by his own admission, a self-hating Irishman. Pierre Joannon, Ireland’s consul general on the Côte d’Azur and a scholar of all things Irish, quoted Moore’s reference to “an original hatred of my native country, and a brutal loathing of the religion I was brought up in” in his keynote lecture.
Joannon compared three writers who published works on Ireland in France in 1886-1887. In his Lettres sur l’Irlande, serialised by Le Figaro, Moore excoriated rich and poor. “Vice, degradation, hard-heartedness grow on every branch” of the landed classes “like blackberries in an autumn hedge”, Joannon quoted Moore as writing. The Irish peasant, Moore wrote, was “grossly superstitious, stupidly improvident, and he breeds blindly like a newt in the wet and slime”.