10 January 1904, the French Academic painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme died at the age of 79 in Paris.
“This is the picture before which the crowd stops most willingly. ... O honest and intelligent crowd. Whom we have so often abused when we have surprised thee in the act of using as a mirror the varnish of some abominable painting! We gladly award thee the praise thou meritest.“ (Théophile Gautier)
|Jean-Léon Gérôme: "Grande Piscine de Brousse" (1885)|
What might the future of history painting look like? Bleak, was Baudelaire’s unsurprising answer during the Salon of 1859. Book-learning and academics obfuscated a complete lack of imagination and it were contemporary scenes and everyday people clad in togas and fireman’s helmets or posing in the nekkid in front of columns usually masquerading as heroes of antiquity or members of the Greek pantheon. Baudelaire’s critic was well-founded and many of the exhibits of the Salon and the pieces hanging in the upper classes’ parlours and bedrooms were technically sound kitsch. But some academic artists and history painters in the aftermath of the Romantic Movement and influenced by Realism, if they wanted or not, produced a distinctive pictorial narrative and did not lack imagination at all. Whether as direct response to Baudelaire’s essay or as an unconscious counterdraft to his critic, in the same year, 1859, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s submissions to the famous annual exhibition received particular attention of the jurors. He did things a bit different than most of the other academic artists.
|Popularising Hollywood's Roman "thumbs down" gesture: Jean-Léon Gérôme's: "Pollice Verso" (1872)|
It wasn’t the exuberant phantasy of a Delacroix or Géricault’s algolagnia, the Romantic Movement was over around 1850 anyway, and Gérôme was schooled along the lines of Jacques-Louis David’s brawny Classicism, but a certain preference of erudite, esoteric subjects, the exotic, weird and wonderful runs like a continuous thread through his oeuvre. A strong, narrative aspect, painting a picture that tells a story, almost always constitutes the background of his canvasses, catering for the wants of a broader audience, seeing days of yore resurrected and the oddness of alien lands, predominantly the Orient, brought to life, preferably including a bit of bare skin, in a harem, a Turkish bath or a slave market. Gérôme had a rare skill in composing this imagery and it is hardly surprising that his paintings were a major inspiration for Hollywood and the first decades of movie making. In a way, his admittedly finite imagination and imagery is thus still alive today, thus proving Baudelaire wrong, even if his oeuvre was discarded when Modernity dawned.
|Jean-Léon Gérôme: “Black Bashi Bazouk“ (1869)|
Depicted above is Jean-Léon Gérôme's imagination of a “Black Bashi Bazouk“ from 1869, an Ottoman irregular soldier from a formation of the Turkish army especially infamous for their assaults on Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire (cf http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bashi-bazouk)
An overview of Gérôme’s amazing imagery can be found on
and more about the artist on: