- Gérôme: The Life and Works of Jean Léon GérômeBy Fanny Field Hering / Classic Reprint: July 19, 2017
- Jean Léon Gérôme: His Life, His Work 1824-1904By Gerald M. Ackerman / March 16, 2009
- Reconsidering GérômeOur PickBy Scott Allan and Mary Morton / September 14, 2010
- The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme: (1824-1904)Our PickBy Laurence des Cars / October 4, 2010
Progression of Art
Young Greeks Attending a Cock Fight (also called The Cock Fight)
This genre painting was a huge success when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1847. It shows two adolescents, seated privately at the base of a relic. In front of them two cocks fight to the death in what was a traditional sport of classical Greece. In the foreground, the boy holds one animal as he kneels in front of verdant greenery. Behind him, semi-nude, a beautiful young woman recoils from the fight. Behind her the turquoise Aegean sea can be seen, and beyond that a Grecian mountain backdrop.
Gérôme was a skilled animal painter and a lover of nature, and believed the study and representation of animals to be an essential part of the complete artist's training. But the work was positioned badly in the salon, "hung so high...as to hide it from the viewing eye", according to Gérôme. Nevertheless, it still met with critical acclaim, launching him into the avant-garde as leader of the Néo-Grecs. Championed by Art Critic Théophile Gautier, who saw "wonders of drawing, action and color" in the work, the painter Victor Mottez added to the praise when he said Gérôme was the "pearl of the Salon" (praise indeed for a work exhibited along-side Auguste Rodin's The Thinker).
The Néo-Grecs turned their back on the solemnity of classicism, seeking more joyous themes. This work represents what would become Gérôme's signature; a subject taken from history and transformed in his imagination. In his smooth, academic style he renders an image made from mosaics in Naples, frescoes from Pompeii and images from the Italian Renaissance. The academic influence of Jacques-Louis David is evident too in his faithful realism and attention to detail. But as Louvre chief curator Dominique de Font-Réaulx said: Gérôme "added a new dimension by seeking to base his painting on the most recent archaeological, ethnographic and historical research." This went on to inspire a "flock of imitators", known as the Pompeians. Not everyone was impressed however. Charles Baudelaire (who happened to be a great friend of Manet) condemned "an artist who substitutes the entertainment provided by a page of erudition for the pleasure of pure painting" and dismissed Gérôme as the leader of what he dismissively called the "meticulous school."
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Ave Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant (Hail Caesar! We Who Are about to Die Salute You)
This spectacular work shows a gladiatorial contest at the Colosseum in Rome - a subject seldom selected for history painting. In the darkened foreground a warrior lies dead; all around him in the sand lay discarded weapons and armor. Behind a man throws sand over the patches of blood, and beyond him other men pull dead bodies from the arena. In the centre is a group of eight gladiators, shouting the words of the title to the Emperor Vitellius who sits above. Sitting to his left are a group of vestal virgins. The light behind shines on the thousands of spectators housed in the curved sweep of the colosseum.
Gérôme liked to present panoramic visions of history; focusing not on individuals or faces, but on vast scenes that took in crowds, architecture, culture and geography. Critics and the public alike were astounded by the work which was the result of Gérôme's meticulous research. He studied architectural drawings of the Colosseum, made countless studies of gladiators and their weaponry and even included the web-like structure that held up the awning protecting the richer members of the audience from the Roman heat. Yet Gérôme's paintings were not historically accurate which diminished his standing as a serious painter. Here, for instance, it was remarked upon that construction of the Colosseum had not begun until 11 years after Vitellius took up office.
Throughout the 19th century, critics complained that history painting, which depicted classical and/or modern historical events in what was known as the "grand style," was becoming contaminated by the more intimate and overtly sentimental genre painting. History painting was supposed to be grand, truthful and moral, but as art historian Laurence des Cars noted, Gérôme's "visual system [which was] based on a very relative neutrality was put in the service of subjects that were themselves considered in terms of minor events and triviality." Des Cars noted however that though a "certain kind of history painting was indeed dead", the new animation of "narrative and images [...] had only just begun," with Gérôme singled out as its starring protagonist.
Oil on canvas - Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut
The Death of Caesar
The Death of Caesar became one of America's favorite Gérôme paintings. The work shows the immediate aftermath of the Roman emperor's assassination, as his joyous killers, hands aloft, seem to dance away from the body. We see a faithful depiction of the art, statuary and architecture, which Gérôme studied while visiting Rome. The scene, set in the Theatre of Pompeii, was however staged in an unconventional style for the time: the subject of the piece, while foregrounded, is secondary to the action of the conspirators. Caesar's body is abandoned in the dark to the left of the canvas, while the narrative is centered on the group of jubilant knifemen.
This composition would have an influence on other history painters. Des Cars wrote: "Its evocative power and its consummate mastery of visual theater, characterized by the favorite device of the central void, was to be a lasting influence on the way other painters depicted and staged drama." Even a grudging Baudelaire was impressed. He remarked: "This time, certainly M Gérôme's imagination has been carried away! [...] Criticism has been leveled at this way of presenting the subject but it deserves great praise. The effect is truly powerful." The work was brought by the American collector John Taylor Johnston.
Oil on canvas - The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, US
The Execution of Marshall Ney
Gérôme's lively imagination can best be seen in this work, which has been described as one of his most surprising paintings. The victim, who lies face down in the mud in the foreground, is Michel Ney, one of Napoleon Bonaparte's most brave and loyal generals. He was however convicted of treason by the new Government shortly after the battle of Waterloo and shot unceremoniously in a squalid corner of Paris. Gérôme paid careful attention to Ney's body, his hands and his suit, while the fine detail in the grubby wall and the muddy foreground merely emphasize the scale of the General's fall from grace. In the distance, however, the brushwork is less carefully rendered, depicting the killing squad's movement and adding to the scene's sense of matter-of-factness. In what was a self-conscious challenge to convention, Gérôme once again focuses on the immediate aftermath of an historic event.
It was important for his relevance as an artist that Gérôme found a new mode, especially so given the fact that, by the mid-nineteenth century, French art was on the cusp of a new dawning. The Realists such as Gustave Courbet, Jean Francois Millet and Rosa Bonheur had already rejected foreign influences and historical and mythological subject matter in favor of realistic images. Though they still used traditional painterly methods, artists like Édouard Manet were beginning to experiment with more impressionistic techniques. Indeed, Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère would soon change the direction of modern art altogether. Exhibited at the Salon in 1882, the Impressionist had caused a scandal within the art establishment by introducing a dubious morality (the Folies-Bergère was a notorious haunt for picking up prostitutes) to the realm of high art. History painting was being knocked from its pedestal, and the viewing public was insisting on new ways to see and interpret the present. For those still invested in historical painting "the facts" were therefore no longer enough and they demanded a novel dimension of psychology and drama. Whether this approach was viewed as a progressive or regressive depended on one's view of the role of the artist. As curator Scott C. Allan explained: "While a few sympathetic critics found a chilling dramatic frisson in Gérôme's descriptive deadpan, most accused him of perversely avoiding all that was potentially grand, heroic and pathetic in the subject. By highlighting the drama's ignoble aftermath rather than its emotional climax, Gérôme's painting constituted an evasion." Indeed, these types of criticism were grounded in the belief that the historical painter should be, if they were to warrant that honorable title, possessed of a certain dependability and conscientiousness.
Oil on canvas - Museums Sheffield, UK
The Snake Charmer
Rendered in Gérôme's trademark highly detailed and decorative style, we see a young boy holding a python as an old man plays a recorder to his right. The boy is naked, apart from the reptile which is double-wrapped around his body, its head held aloft by the boy. In the background, a group of ten men in Islamic tribal dress look on, holding staffs and weapons. They are seated on the floor against a backdrop of a beautiful eastern tiled wall, shining in azure, cyan, turquoise and aquamarine. The viewer is perhaps invited to judge the men, but to Western audiences, for whom the Orient and its people was a mystery, the work's primary function was to titillate.
The painting was inspired by a trip to Constantinople, and along the top of the wall we see Arabic text. Like many of the artist's canvases, it was a composite, put together in his studio from studies he made abroad. As such, errors and inconsistencies slipped in. Gérôme's tight, realistic style paints an intriguing picture, but the work has been widely rebuked by contemporary critics. Indeed, art critic Jonathan Jones called it a "sleazy imperialist vision of 'the east'", and the work even adorned the cover of Edward Said's seminal 1978 text Orientalism, a book that took Western culture to task over the way it had patronized the far East and its societies and customs. Jones continued: "The Snake Charmer is such an obviously pernicious and exploitative western fantasy of 'the Orient' that it makes Said's case for him." Art historian Linda Lochlin described it meanwhile as a "visual document of nineteenth-century colonialist ideology, an iconic distillation of the Westerner's notion of the Oriental couched in the language of a would-be transparent naturalism." Such criticisms rather ignores the fact that, despite his aesthetic play on fine details, Gérôme had based his painting on what he had witnessed first-hand.
Oil on canvas - Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
The Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind
This late work, one of three depicting the same subject. shows a pale, naked woman, emerging from the well of the title. She is in motion, lurching towards the spectator, her mouth open in either an expression of anger or exclamation. In her right hand she holds a switch, possibly to use in attack, and her obvious anger is at odds with her naked vulnerability. The pallor of her skin is emphasized by the dark, cold looking stone and the depths of the foliage behind her. Above, a ghostly blue and red light is cast on the brickwork, setting the scene at sunset.
In this strange, compelling painting, the message behind Gérôme's narrative is ambiguous. The artist seldom produced allegorical pieces, and the meaning behind this painting has been the subject of debate. On a denotative level, the canvas is a literal translation of the Greek philosopher Democritus' saying: "The truth lies at the bottom of the well." However, the Director of the musée national Eugène Delacroix, Dominique de Font-Réaulx suggested that the work served as an affirmation of Gérôme's own artistic choices: "These depictions of the Truth were done by an ageing artist whose manner and style had been severely challenged by a younger generation of artists, notably including the Impressionists, whom he intensely opposed." In this interpretation then, Truth stands for the superiority of his realistic style and his search for accuracy in painting. A review at the time said that the woman is climbing from the well "in great anger" but he or she could not decide "whether she is angry at artists, critics or her dry-cleaner." It is true that the work was not met with the same kind of fanfare that greeted some of Gérôme's early works. Nevertheless, it remains especially relevant today as an unlikely feminist meme which has been re-appropriated online as a symbol of female rage.
Oil on Canvas - Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu, Moulins, France
Described by Musée d'Orsay in its index as a "strange and disturbing masterpiece", Corinth was Gérôme's homage to the ancient Greek city of Corinth, the birthplace of painting, sculptural portraiture, the Corinthian architectural column, and also home of the sacred prostitutes who occupied the ancient temple of Aphrodite. The sculpture shows a crossed-legged naked woman bedecked only in jewels. Her gaze is piercing and her demeaner somewhat mysterious and provocative, and when combined with the finery of her jewelled accessories, she represents the figure of an Aphrodite courtesan.
The piece, one of the artist's last works (it was in fact left unfinished by Gérôme, to be completed by his assistant Emile Decorchement and exhibited at the Salon in 1904), shows how he excelled at polychrome sculpting. Indeed, Corinth exemplifies Gérôme's preference for cross-referencing painting and sculpture. It was after 1890 (with Tanagra) that Gérôme shifted towards sculptural polychromy: the technique of painting sculpture or architecture with color that was commonplace in antiquity (typically, classical sculptures are presented unpainted). By painting onto marble with paint made from pigmented wax, Gérôme was attempting to revive that ancient discipline. Here the monochrome of tinted-marble and bronze, the colored wax (in which the jewellery was cast) and the flesh-colored painted finish, combine to create a strong illusion of realism (much like his painting). In keeping with his attention to detail, the figure's jewellery was based on observed Greek and Etruscan examples (on display in The Louvre) while the woman's hairstyle and facial features were very much the style of the turn-of-the-century Parisienne woman. By connecting a classical depiction with the contemporary Corinth was a daring (for some licentious) work, and, in that respect, a career finale quite befitting of the artist's oeuvre.
Polychrome plaster, colored wax, and metallic wire - Paris, Musée d'Orsay