Jean-Léon Gérôme (May 11, 1824—January 10, 1904) was the most eminent academicist French painter between the 1860s and 1880s when he also became a reference for the traditionalists against the modernists.
Jean-Léon Gérôme Summary:
- He was educated under Paul Delaroche, who brought him to Italy which heightened his interest in art.
- His body of work consists of a wide range of themes and styles that fall under the academic painting tradition.
- After his visit to Egypt, he began creating Orientalist paintings that depicted African and Arab everyday life.
- All throughout his life, he received commissions from important figures and institutions.
- He taught at l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts and his long list of students-turned-successful artists includes Mary Cassatt and Thomas Eakins.
Early Life & Learning
Jean-Léon Gérôme was born in eastern France and traced a very successful course through the artistic establishment of Paris. He learned under Paul Delaroche, made the necessary pilgrimage to the Italian centers of art, and briefly became an apprentice of Charles Gleyre.
He also entered the École des Beaux-Arts, thereafter expecting to reach all the other stages of the artist’s cursus honorum: the Prix de Rome, the Paris Salon, and the royal commission.
The Paris Salon
Despite failing to win the Prix in 1846, Gérôme exhibited at the Salon in 1847, where his painting The Cock Fight earned him a medal. He was at once identified with the eclectic Neo-Classical style known as Néo-Grec, spearheaded by his master, Gleyre.
Gérôme recognized that criticism was favorable and continued to exhibit at the Salon more works in the rigorous academic style and with the vogue quasi-classical subject matter. In 1851, his was the decoration on a vase given by Emperor Napoleon III to Prince Albert of Britain as a gift.
Early success as an artist
Illustrious and wealthy commissions followed. For The Age of Augustus, a majestic allegorical oil, Jean-Léon Gérôme was able to voyage through Greece and European Turkey (1853-1854) in order to sketch the people and the surroundings. It was likely commissioned by the Emperor himself, whose iconographies often portrayed him as the Augustus of the modern age.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Orientalist paintings
In 1856, Gérôme launched upon a grand tour of the Near East, which opened his art to Oriental subjects mostly depicted according to Orientalist expectations.
The most famous of these paintings is doubtless The Slave Market (1866), showing the auction of a fair-skinned female slave. This part of Gérôme’s oeuvre has been the object of innumerable studies in the fields of culture, intercultural relations, and gender studies.
Meanwhile, Jean-Léon Gérôme art garnered confirmations at the highest level. His paintings at the Universal Exhibition of 1855 were noted; even more so his Orientalist showing at the Paris Salon of 1857. The subsequent year Gérôme was employed to decorate the house of Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte with fashionable Pompeian motifs.
In 1859, Gérôme displayed Ave Caesar! Morituri te Salutant, a painting that popularised the knowledge of the Roman gladiatorial spectacle and the sentence supposedly pronounced by the gladiators before the emperor. Pollice Verso of 1872 further popularised the thumbs down gesture which supposedly decreed the death of defeated combatants.
In Paris, Jean-Léon Gérôme was part of an artistic circle centred upon Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs and presided informally by George Sand. It was attended at various times by Johannes Brahms, Gioachino Rossini, Théophile Gautier, and Ivan Turgenev.
Professor Jean-Léon Gérôme
Between 1864 and 1904 Gérôme was a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. His high reputation and unorthodox teaching methods drew students throngs to seek admission to his course. Gérôme admitted only the best.
His teaching proceeded from drawing on to painting, and from antique pieces and casts to live models in the nude as subjects. He required that his students master every particular technique before being allowed to learn the next one.
Although he demanded attendance and upheld a severe discipline, Jean-Léon Gérôme also put his students through bawdy physical trials in the style of later college fraternities.
As a consequence, his atelier was also known for its playful and sexual character. He was also an exigent critic, extremely difficult to impress.
In the 1860s, Gérôme stepped onto the apogee of his career. As well as an esteemed university professor, he was first knighted into the Légion d’honneur and then promoted to officer. He was elected into the Royal Academy of Britain while King Wilhelm of Prussia bestowed the Grand Order of the Red Eagle upon him.
He became honorary president of the French Society of Orientalist Painters. He even enjoyed the friendship of Empress Eugénie. At the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, he was part of the elite invited to attend. In short, between the 1860s and the 1880s, Gérôme was easily the most famous French painter and certainly the most regarded.
Besides his unquestionable critical and commercial success, Jean-Léon Gérôme was also at the heart of scandal for some of his subject matter. His paintings from the 1859-1861 period were criticized for their blatant erotic appeal (see Phryne Before the Areopagus), while The Execution of Marshal Ney of 1868 was marred by the request of Ney’s descendants that the painting not be shown. Gérôme disregarded their request and the event attracted some negative attention.
Jean-Léon Gérôme & The Impressionists
Gérôme declared himself against the Impressionists when they manifested in the 1880s and was one of their greatest artistic opponents for the duration of the movement. Gérôme, of course, represented both the academicist style and the artistic establishment against which (most of) the Impressionists were consciously reacting. Gérôme protested against the collection which established the Musée d’Orsay because it included modernist art which he regarded as trash.
Mythological paintings & sculpture
In the 1890s, Gérôme developed a series of paintings and sculptures on the themes of Pygmalion and Galatea, respectively a mythological sculptor who fell in love with his creation and the Grecian nymph whose statuettes had recently been excavated.
Jean-Léon Gérôme had been learning sculpture since the 1850s, but it had ever barely played second to his celebrated work as a painter. In Pygmalion and Galatea, Gérôme appears to have sought to represent the conceptual symbiosis between the two arts.
In the same period, Gérôme painted Truth Coming Out of Her Well, a subject that appears to have been a great interest of his at the time, whether because of political happenings (the Dreyfus Affaire) or as a statement on art is unknown.
Death & Legacy of Jean-Léon Gérôme
When he died, Gérôme was interred at the Montmartre Cemetery after a somber ceremony that he had requested. The funeral was attended by prominent representatives of the worlds of politics and art.
Jean-Léon Gérôme was a highly successful academicist artist. The style is so-called for its origin in the French academies of art. It is guided by a dedication to classicist idealism of form and, often, classical themes. It requires naturalistic volumes, proportions, perspective, and finishing lines. In the figure of Gérôme it found a life-long exponent and an anti-modernist partisan.
Gérôme was an extremely influential teacher of art, both as a professor at the École and as a guiding example to generations of artists after his death.
When his reputation was impugned by contemporary critics, it was sometimes because of the salaciousness of his female nudes, a subject he was especially drawn to. More significantly, it was objected that his use of nudity and his accommodation of passing fads was commercializing art unduly.
The Impressionist (and wider modernist) argument against academicism will in fact indict its perceived inauthenticity.
The Slave Market (1866) & The Snake Charmer (1879)
Jean-Léon Gérôme paintings Slave Market and Snake Charmer are possibly the most famous cases of Western Orientalist art, the latter even appearing on the cover of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the book which gave the term its present-day meaning.
The scene of The Slave Market was studied by Gérôme for a decade and given definitive shape by what he saw of Northern Africa. It shows a young woman in the nude being judged by her potential buyers on a slave market, possibly that of Cairo. The clients are in the act of checking the state of her teeth as part of a general test of her health. The Snake Charmer is a wide indoor scene (both paintings are enclosed by architecture) showing a young boy wearing only a live python around his shoulders and waist. A group of men of various ages and professions watches him sit back to a wall while a fiddler plays on the right.
The wall with blue tile and arabesques is vying for visual primacy with the event: it occupies nearly two-thirds of the canvas and lends it the dominant bluish tone.
In Edward Said’s perception of The Snake Charmer, emblematic of the anti-Orientalist consensus, it is nothing more than a Western fantasy built out of stereotypes. Conversely, ‘Oriental’ critics (such as Ibn Warraq) and purchasers have seen it from a less problematizing perspective, appreciating its distillation of North African and Levantine elements.
Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (1859) & Pollice Verso (1872)
Gérôme’s famous paintings of gladiatorial scenes have been a significant influence in popularising the idea that gladiators fighting in the Roman arena used to shout, “Hail, Cesar/Emperor, those who are about to die salute you”; and the idea that a ‘thumbs down’ gesture was used, either by the sovereign or the public, to decide whether an incapacitated combatant was to be also killed by his victor or not.
The appearance of Gérôme’s paintings sparked a public debate on the reliability of the reports on which the artist had based himself and the frequency of the gestures described in gladiatorial spectacles. They are certainly not known to have been common. The shout may have occurred only once (in 52 AD, before Emperor Claudius) while there is no conclusive evidence of what gesture was habitual (or whether there was a habitual gesture everywhere) in the circumstance of a defeated combatant.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s vision of these quasi-historical subjects is typical of the academicist approach: historicistic and highly detailed in some parts, clearly imaginative and anachronistic in others.