JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME: History Painter
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was on the wrong side of history. Many people have been on the wrong side of history, and, like the segregationist Senator, Strom Thurmond, they deserve to stay there. However, art history is more subjective than history-history, which is supposedly based upon verifiable facts. Art falls into the perilous zone of subjectivity and art and artists are subjected to the rise and fall of critical preferences and of aesthetic judgments. Gérôme was art history’s most vile villain, most reliable enemy to all things Modernist. He was the perfect foil to Manet, Monet, and Cézanne, not because he was a popular and successful Salon artist but because he railed against his Impressionist counterparts, often and in public, on the record. But since the 1980s, a “younger” generation of art historians, in search of new material for dissertations, began to revive the dead dinosaurs of “official” French art. And Gérôme was among the most in need of revision.
The current exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, “The Spectacular art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904)” is one of the highlights of the summer of 2010. The beige marble citadel high on a hill overlooking the Sepulveda Pass and the 405 Freeway has been honored as the first stop on a tour, which features the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Museo Thysssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. It is rare for Los Angeles to be the lead in the museum world, especially for such a superb array of paintings, many of which were recently retrieved from ignominy out of museum basements. Unlike some art historians, I am not interested in rescuing a neglected artist, unjustly discarded by the forces of history, or in making a case for his worthiness. I am more interested in making sure that history is made complete. Without championing Gérôme, it can be said that it is necessary for him to be re-placed in the history of Nineteenth-century art, if only to better understand the Modernist artists and their accomplishments and their courage. It is important to understand the vast differences between Gérôme and the Impressionists in terms of painting techniques and the subject matter in order to comprehend the reception of the art audience and Salon goers.
When the real art history of the Second Empire and the Third Republic in France was restored by the new art historians, it was revealed that Gérôme was genuinely popular with the art audiences and collectors of his time because his art was immensely innovative, decidedly novel, technically proficient (not outstanding but good enough), and, above all, featured sex and violence. A can’t miss combination. The reason why he fell off the art history pantheon was, as all art historians know, because of the Theory of Modernism. Beginning somewhere around the art critic, Charles Baudelaire, migrating to the British critic, Roger Fry and culminating in the American critic, Clement Greenberg, this theory put forward an entity called “Modernism,” both a state of mind and a period of time, that produced an artistic attitude called “art-for-art’s sake,” which led to avant-garde art, a reaction to modernité.
According to the teleology of Modernism, the founding fathers (no mothers allowed) were Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet and their progeny, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists and all the “isms” of the Twentieth-century, climaxing with Jackson Pollock. Any artist, no matter how historically famous and successful, could not be a Modernist unless he (not she: women were not considered) was part of that select group. The artists of the Salon were eliminated, the “official” artists were purged, English and American artists were left out, and only a small group of French male artists were allowed to be part of the club. The result was an art history based upon an evolutionary theory of a progressive march taken by art from representation to abstraction. The Greenberg story of art was an excellent metanarrative, as Jean-François Lyotard would later call it, but it was not a proper history of art. Modernism was a construct, a convenient fiction, complete with heroes and villains.
The Artist and the Public
“The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904)” comes equipped with a large catalogue and a smaller book of essays that strive to re-write the artist back into art history. Gerald Ackerman, whom I met while I was in graduate school, began the revival of Gérôme. At the time, Ackerman told me he had been working on Gérôme for twenty years and it is his pioneering effort that is the foundation of scholarship for today’s writers. Current scholars point out that, even in his own time, Gérôme was as controversial with the critics as the avant-garde artists. Like the latter, Gérôme had to court and please the bourgeoisie, and the career-minded artist created a juste milieu path between erudite, orthodox, high-minded history painting and low-caste genre scenes of everyday life (“Molière Breakfasting with Louis XIV,” 1862). Taking a page from the playbook employed by Ernst Meissonier, Gérôme rethought history painting and made it accessible and entertaining to the middle class art audience (“The Tulip Folly,” 1862). In place of classical knowledge, understandable to scholars and specialists, the artist inserted carefully researched archaeological and ethnographic detail (“Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem,” 1876). In place of the relentless ordinariness of Realism and the remorseless observation of Naturalism, Gérôme substituted panoply of information, educating the viewer. Instead of heroes and noble characters, he created a cast for his theater of history and used the actors to tell arresting stories about life in another place and another time.
Gérôme’s art presents us with spectacle on two levels, echoing the culture of scopophilia and observation of the Other that was the basis of Second Empire power and Third Republic imperialism and the control of men over women. First, Gérôme’s art showed the sheer spectacle that held sway during the Roman Empire. Bread, circuses, food and entertainment—-if you provide the people with these two necessities, they will tolerate any amount of tyranny. Whether or not this conscious policy is smart of despicable depends upon one’s political point of view. To the middle-class French people, survivors of multiple revolutions and uprisings among the disempowered, a firm hand on the wheel may have seemed a good idea. Second, there is no reason to assume that Gérôme was trying to anything more than present interesting subject matter to his audience. There was probably not much sub-text in his work. Indebted to his imperial patrons, Gérôme was a conservative who would be unwilling to offend his collectors. All he asked of the viewer was to look. Clearly he had worked out a formula: sex and violence sells; and the exercise of imperialism is comforting to a second-class power.
His paintings of the Roman Empire enshrine the pleasure of looking, of seeing violence that happens to others and not to you, a pleasure called by Burke, the “sublime.” That heightened and intense emotion that Edmund Burke wrote of was, not incidentally, in relation to the spectacle of beheading during the French Revolution. In the Roman arena, there are no victors, only victims of a system of witnessing what was an imperial display of the Emperor’s power. The gladiators, who were slaves, saluted the Emperor before they died in “Ave Caesar, Morituri, Te Salutant” (1859), the Christians, who in actuality were prosecuted in very small numbers, provided the fledgling religion with its first martyrs. Maxime de Camp, photographer of the Middle East, complained that Gérôme was inaccurate, and the artist did, indeed, take liberties for dramatic effect. His painting of Christian martyrs showed human beings used as torches but the scene is set in daytime, while Nero put on such a show only at night. In “The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayers” (1863 – 1883), the lion approaches the huddling worshipers. Much has been written of Gérôme’s prediction of film and his use of the long pause in a narrative and, indeed, the viewer can see the emerging head of other felines coming into the sand surface of the Coliseum. Like the martyrs, we wait. As opposed to “Gathering up the Lions in the Circus” (1902), in real life, animals had no interest in attacking humans and had to be taught, even forced to pounce. During these centuries of arena entertainment, wild animals, entire species were either wiped out or put in danger, due to the overindulgence of the Romans.
The Roman audience in “Pollice Verso” (1872) came to the arena to be entertained. Some commentators and historians have since suggested that the blood lust acted as a kind of drug, dulling the senses, reducing human carnage to a mere theatrical exercise. There was an endless supply of slaves and criminals to put to death in an exercise of punishment and control. Although Gérôme could not have imagined modern film, his paintings of the Roman Empire became sources of inspiration for Hollywood film directors, from C. B. De Mille to Ridley Scott. But that observation raises a rather interesting question: why are we still so fascinated with an imperial power, which used human beings as stage lights, crucified even the most insignificant dissidents, rewarded the few and persecuted the many, keeping everything in balance through constant spectacles of blood and violence? Why does Hollywood not make movies about the Greeks, unless they are fighting the Persians in tiny leather uniforms? Do we conclude that we are superior to the Romans in the arena because we are addicted only to movie violence?
In a world where schools have long since sidelined history, most of us learn of the past from the History Channel and Oliver Stone. Today we could call Gérôme a “popularizer.” If he were a history professor today, he would be complimented for helping the students identify with the events of the past. However, history painting in Nineteenth-century France was not necessarily supposed to be popular, only revered and respected. Unlike Gustave Courbet who dis-respected the Salon system by portraying unattractive uninteresting modern types on a large scale, reserved for history painting, Gérôme kept most of his works small or medium sized. He was, in effect, using the rules to create a new space for what the system had already approved. In the end, he slipped past his many detractors and found fame, fortune, and many honors. As Scott Allan pointed out in his “Introduction” to “Reconsidering Gérôme,” the artist was “appointed professor at the newly reorganized École des Beaux-Arts in 1863…. (was given) a seat in the Institut de France in 1865…(and was) nominated grand officier of the Legion of Honor in 1898.” Son-in-law to the grand impresario of art reproduction, Adolph Goupil, Gérôme was one of the most reproduced and widely distributed artists of the Nineteenth-century. But was he a good artist?
The Artist and Technique
I went to the exhibition with my good friend and colleague, Irina, and, like post-Post-Modernist art historians, we glided among the many theoretical approaches available to us, from formalism to feminism, to discuss Gérôme. Technically speaking, he was an odd mixture. On one hand, he could handle paint only in a limited manner, for he was essentially a drawer in paint. On the other hand, he never won the Rome Prize for good reason—-he was almost blind when it came to the classical approach to the human figure. Only when he removed himself from the Beaux-Arts tradition did he become at ease with the people he painted. His nude women are borrowed entirely from other artists, especially from Ingres and Chassérieu (“Character Study for a Greek Interior,” 1850), and are boneless and airbrushed to a peculiar blank flatness. But when Gérôme clothed his females, he was completely at ease. His portrait of the daughter of Betty de Rothschild, who was painted by Ingres in 1848, “Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild” (1866) is not as stunning as an Ingres painting but Gérôme held his own with the master. His”Portrait of M. Édouard Delessert” (1864) with the subject nattily dressed in blue argyle socks is a genuine character study.
Despite these near-great portraits, Gérôme seemed to have had a hard time integrating actual sites with imaginary people. For example, there is a wonderful trio in the exhibition, featuring Napoléon in Egypt. “Napoléon and his General Staff in Egypt” (1867) imagines a very large General on a very dainty camel, but it is not the size disparity, it is the startled expression on Napoléon’s face that makes today’s viewer smile. Oedipus (1863 – 86) also plays havoc with scale: Napoléon is on a tiny horse, standing in front of a shrunken Sphinx. But most interesting is “Napoléon in Cairo” (1867 – 68), a simple little painting with the General standing in full uniform with Islamic mosques in the background. In real life, Napoléon was short and rounded, but here he is tall and slim. The viewer is given TMI—the details of the uniform are exquisitely rendered and one learns, thanks to the deep shadows of selective folds of his trousers, that the future Emperor “dressed” left. There are probably several reasons for the disparity of scale and proportion in Gérôme’s paintings. One would certainly be his academic training, which taught students to think in pastiche and collage and to “paste,” as it were, standard studio poses into grand backgrounds. Another cause would have been the artist’s use of photography as his source. Photography tended to make minute details available to the human eye, and when Gérôme copied these details, the effect was to flatten the surface with non-hierarchal information that overwhelmed the displaced figures and threw off the scale.
Gérôme emerged onto the Parisian art scene as the leader of the “Neo-Grec” school (according to the critics of his day) with “The Cock Fight” in the Salon of 1847. The genre painting tells a story of cocks, both seen and unseen, as a young boy orchestrates a contest between two roosters while a young girl shrinks away, as well she might. However, Gérôme did not confine himself to antiquity and the choice of his subjects says a great deal about what was going on in France during his career. Just as his mentor Paul Delaroche spoke obliquely about the French Revolution (matricide and patricide) with “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey”(1833), Gérôme saluted the Second Empire by celebrating the current Emperor’s uncle, Napoléon I in a number of paintings, some direct references, some indirect. The rather marvelous “The Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors at Fountainebleau” (1864) is a direct steal of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Coronation of Napoléon” (1807). Two other wonderful paintings, “The Grey Cardinal” (1873) and the “Reception of the Duc de Condé at Versailles” (1878) were painted after the fall of the Second Empire and could be interpreted as a warning against secret power (the Cardinal and by extension the late Empire) and a plea for reconciliation (Duc de Condé) after rebellion, but, given the inherent conservatism of Gérôme, the works could be more comfortably read in relation to the nostalgic Bonapartism and a desire for a monarchy, which marked the unsteady early decades of the ill-fated Third Republic.
The Artist and Gender
In painting after painting, Gérôme clearly demonstrated his discomfort with women. Before his very profitable marriage to the daughter of Europe’s biggest art dealer, Gérôme lived a rather Bohemian life in a homosocial environment. Like most men of his time, he would have had little contact with women of his own class and he would not have considered a woman to be his equal. His nudes are far removed from actual women, as if their nakedness made him so uneasy, he had to use “the nude” as a mask for their disconcerting naturalness. But he is equally uncomfortable with male bodies. Both the gladiator in the celebrated Ave Caesar and the belly dancer in “Dance of the Almeh” (1863) are pudgy: the gladiator sports man boobs and the dancer has a large pot. But Gérôme was comfortable with little boys, carefully delineating their backsides in “The Serpent Charmer” (1880) and his early”Michelangelo (in his Studio),” 1849. In the former, the backside is bare, in the latter the backside is literally delineated due to a pair of red-striped tights, worn by the child. My friend Irina remarked that there is something “almost unseemly” in Gérôme’s art. I would agree, although I would eliminate the polite “almost.” Many of his paintings are simply unseemly, in today’s terms, in their confirmation of the scopophilia of male desire for conquest through the passive gaze.
“Prynne Before the Areopagus” (1861) presents one of Gérôme’s repeated themes: men looking at an object of lust. The object, in this case a woman, is isolated and alone and, most of all, naked, totally exposed to the male gaze. The artist tried to have his specious content both ways—men gaze upon women but the beauty of women’s bodies subdue them, stun them into silence and submission. But the male is always clothed and always retains his power. Young “Prynne” is examined by a group of startled old men, dressed in strong red robes, countering her pale hairless body. Nowhere were women under the command of the male as she was in the mysterious East. The notion of the submissive and speechless woman was especially appealing to Frenchmen, alarmed by the propensity of Frenchwomen to rise up during each revolution at home. French women had been stripped of any social powers and political disenfranchisement, stripped naked in custom and law. The “Dance of the Almeh” (1863) also empowers the men, who watch the gyrating dancer who writhes for their amusement. The males in the circle are equipped with long straight phallic instruments, guns, spears, violin bows and even a pipe, as though they are protecting themselves. The same excess of protection and phallic display can be seen in “The Serpent Charmer.” The old man at the center of the group has a long sword suggestively rising above his upper thigh as he watches the naked little boy playing with a long snake. The rest of the men are well equipped with erect spears, raising the unanswerable question of whether or not Gérôme was aware of the sexual subtext.
“For Sale (The Slave Market)” of 1866 is the ultimate expression of the stripped and speechless woman being exchanged among men (according to Engels). The slave market in the Middle East has replaced the European concept of marriage as a financial exchange and, as the catalogue essay on this painting reports that the French public “hardly batted an eye.” The idea that the “public” was unphased by this painting implies that the painting was intended for men, which it surely was, and that the art was not viewed by women, which it surely was. Although women of the Second Empire were not expected to see art but were embarrassed by the painterly display of helpless female flesh, one can imagine that some of these ladies imagined the slave woman biting the fingers of the man who was examining her teeth.
In other paintings, the audience itself is outside the scene, looking it or looking at the imagined world of the harem. The external spectator was metaphorically internalized as a red robe reclining on a wooden chair in “King Candaules,” 1859), watching the exchange of male looks. The King’s guard, Gyes, lurking in the dark, off to the right, is watching the queen Nyssia. The queen is caught in a triangulated gaze among men, but as Baudelaire pointed out, she would not have been the “dull puppet,” depicted by Gérôme. As was typical for the artist, the woman is pale and naked and helpless with her back turned to the audience in a gesture of modesty thrown in by the painter. One could ask if showing a woman’s naked body from the rear is more or less discrete. “The Moorish Bath” (1872) is noteworthy for the carefully drawn Islamic tiles and for the inherent racism that exposed the naked breasts of the African slave and allowed the white woman to turn modestly away from the viewer. Echoing European and American notions of racial hierarchy, “The Grand Bath at Bursa” (1885) is yet another Imaginary Orient, complete with white women (presumably captured by swarthy Arab chieftains) who are sexual slaves and black women who take care of the needs of the concubines. At least in the harem, the women are together and have each other’s company. In many of Gérôme’s paintings, the women are alone, with no friend and no one to defend or take care of them, reflecting the Western version of marriage, the isolated woman, entirely dependent upon her husband.
The Artist as Colonialist
Much has been written about Gérôme as painter to the colonizers, and indeed his many trips to Egypt coincided with France’s desire to master the Middle East and to build an empire. Although their imperial ambitions dated back to Napoléon, the French never caught up with the British who had an empire upon which “the sun never sets.” The Second Empire and the Third Republic, the era of Gérôme, were the high points of French acquisition of territory and artifacts from northern Africa and the Middle East. Gérôme was at his best when he acted as ethnographer, observing the Other. As distasteful as the Imperial gaze was, it did have the virtue of freeing Gérôme from the tropes of classicism and the poncifs of academia. One does not often think of Gérôme the landscape artist, but, as my friend Irina pointed out, his desert paintings are beautiful, dappled with the blue of the sky reflected upon the pale golden buff-colored rocks, just as an Impressionist would (“The Lion on Watch,” 1890). Here in a desert light that flattens everything, the silhouetted sharp edges of Gérôme’s dry drawing make sense. In “Arabs Crossing the Desert” (1870), the large scale of the figures is permissible in such open distances. In these paintings of the Middle East, colors are intensified in the light and Gérôme came into his own with his strong colors, unexpectedly pinks (“The Black Bard,” 1888) and brilliant oranges and blazing yellows (The Marabou, 1888), hot reds vibrating on the surfaces (“The Standard Bearer,” 1876). “The Color Grinder” (1891) summarizes the importance of color with a row of large stone mortars lined up in front of a dark shop in the Holy Land. In an age of paint in tubes, Gérôme painted the encircled lips of the large stones, which are glowing with vibrant colors pounded into submission.
Although Gérôme replicated the Middle East and its male inhabitants with apparent exactitude, his paintings are fantasy pastiches. But they are totally convincing and carried a larger truth of white European fantasies of conquest and control of the inferior Other. The people he so carefully studied and observed during his many visits are from another century were devoid of technology beyond the Seventeenth century, backwards and in need of French guidance. “Heads of the Rebel Beys of the Mosque El Assaneyn” (1866) mixed actual events with infidel barbarity, necessitating the civilizing French touch upon a people who favored a public beheading. The irony of such an attitude of superiority may have escaped Gérôme. (The French continued to use the guillotine into the 1940s.) A fascinating and harmless object of curiosity, entertaining the French audience, “The Whirling Dervish” (1889) needs to be Christianized and Europeanized. Due to the precise accuracy garnered from a photograph, the Salon goers assumed that the artist was educating them with “The Carpet Merchant” (1887). Each painting of Middle Eastern life can be seen as a contrast to European life—a market instead of a bank, souks, not department stores, fanaticism instead of Catholicism—with the Muslim barbarians being presented as the Other, as Different, as Inferior, as Strange, as Something to be Looked At, as Spectacle, captured by the artist, commanded by the whitened gaze of the spectator.
The Getty catalogue included a number of paintings done by Gérôme on the theme of the male sculptor and his female model, reflections on the Pygmalion and Galatea myth. From “Pygmalion and Galatea” (1890), where Galatea comes to live when the delighted Pygmalion kisses her to “The Artist’s Model” (1895), when Gérôme becomes Pygmalion, we can trace the desire of Gérôme to make the perfect woman. Strangely enough, his women come alive only when they are sculpted, usually larger than life. Polychromed Nineteenth century sculpture, especially sculptures with teeth (“The Ball Player,” 1902) and jewelry are an acquired taste, even for people educated by Jeff Koons. For us today, Gérôme’s “The Gladiators” (1878) are both reminiscent of fascistic works and of fantasy figures from World of Warcraft. As Édouard Papet pointed out in his catalogue essay on Gérôme’s sculpture, the fact that the ancients polychromed their sculpture had just come to light. Accustomed to the bleached whiteness of marble exposed to the elements or buried underground, Europeans must have found it difficult to adjust their taste to the multiple colors of marble used by Cordier. By the time of Gérôme, his chastely colored females would have been acceptable. But to Modernist educated contemporary viewers, Gérôme’s sculptures were simply gaudy bad taste and they disappeared from view.
The Getty has brought together a splendid collection of the artist’s late sculptural work, the highlight of which has to be “Corinth” (1904). Decked out with jewelry, which is applied to her naked body in every conceivable site, she would be the envy of Jeff Koons; she was the epitome of vulgarity and excess, a siren of the Gilded Age. “Corinth” and the portrait of “Sarah Bernhardt” (1901) were true highpoints of the exhibition, even for the visitor who has seen many, many paintings already in the previous galleries. Paradoxically, the rare paintings by Gérôme, which allow the woman any agency at all, feature the art of sculpture, the craft of Pygmalion. In “Painting Breathes Life into Sculpture,” 1893), a young woman, working in the back of a Tanagra shop, is painting the small female sculptures, bringing them to life. In ancient Greece, there were women who were allowed to participate in their family’s workshop, but, although they were accomplished artists, they did not sign their names. In”The End of the Séance” (1886) the still-nude model covers the clay repliant of herself, as though to grant the inanimate object some protection and modesty that she herself has been denied.
The Artist and Orientalism
My friend Irina and I noted the penchant of Gérôme to fill in his canvases with overwhelming detail about the Orient. Full of bric-a-brac, the paintings are crowded with information, much of which was gained from the artist’s many visits to the Middle East and documentary photographs. From one perspective, the artist’s work was typical of the Victorian “horror vacui.” From another point of view, the artist was on a mission. The French tactic of conquest through military might and the gathering of facts dated back to Napoléon’s ill-fated foray into Egypt. The history of paintings of the Middle East done by French artists also dates from the early Nineteenth-century when the Turks and the Muslims were depicted as brutal and backward. Gérôme nodded to his artistic precursors in his painting of “Marcus Botsaris,” a hero of the war of Greek Independence who fought with Lord Byron. But the 1874 painting itself, is typical of Gérôme’s approach to the unfamiliar: he delineated a veritable encyclopedia of an Eastern inventory of décor and paraphenalia.
Gérôme’s dedication to accuracy was part of larger tendencies: the rise of modern history writing, the rise of the French Empire, the use of photography to record and preserve the known world, and the period’s fear of empty space. Gérôme’s paintings are packed with these cultural vibrations. His art owed a great deal to the French delight in the Pre-Raphaelites and their facility for storytelling, which he put in the service of imperialism. It would be anachronistic to accuse the artist of “complicity” on a conscious level in an enterprise that would, a century later, be described by the French as an accidental empire. Undoubtedly, Gérôme shared the prejudices and desires of his time and believed in the right for the French to have an Empire. His paintings were part of a deeply felt belief system. In his investigation of the pioneering efforts of French artists in picturing the Orient, Todd Porterfield did not accept that the current French scholarship which insists that the imperialism of France was “haphazard” and “timidly entered into.” According to Porterfield, the French artists portrayed,
…national attributes are posited that pit French science, morality, masculinity, and intellectual rigor against supposedly representative traits of Easterners: fanaticism, cruelty, idleness, vice, irrationality, deviance, and degeneracy.
As was pointed out earlier, this was exactly the dialectical strategy employed decades later by Gérôme in his paintings of the Mysterious East and the Backward Other. it would be safe to assume that the artist believed, in common with most other Europeans, that the culture of the West or the Occident was superior. The discourse of racial and cultural superiority had been in the making among European scholars and writers for decades. The late Palestinian philosopher, Edward Said, revealed the role of discourse in the literary manufacture of “Orientalism” in his 1978 book of the same name. Although the cover of his book featured Gérôme’s “The Serpent Charmer,” Said did not discuss “Orientalizing” art. Said pointed out that when the Europeans wrote about the East, the scholars were creating, not the truth, but a “representation” of the “Orient.” Using Michel Foucault’s concept of “discourse” in which serious speech acts from experts shape what becomes received knowledge surrounding a topic, Said stated that the “Orient” was constructed in terms of what the West was not. As Foucault pointed out, representation as constructed by the One would fabricate the Other into a inferior for purposes of discipline and punishment, power and control. Said continued the French philosopher’s thought by pointing out that an “Imaginary Orient” was manufactured for the purpose of defining the Europeans themselves by using the “Orient” as the negative to the Western positive. The Imaginary Orient had little to do with the “real” Middle East, for the Europeans were essentially uninterested in the Other. Europeans were concerned with the task of writing themselves into a position of dominance.
The concept of Foucault and Said was quickly taken up by art historians, resulting in a major investigation into the attitude that European artists had towards the Other. Thanks to post-colonial theory, it is possible to view Gérôme and his art as an expression of French power over a dark-skinned people who refused modernity and Westernization. The art of Gérôme had to overwhelm the viewer with facts, information, detail, as though to compensate for a fundamental Lack of knowledge. Foucault equated seeing/sight with power: “voir, savoir, pouvoir:” to see is to know is to have power over. For all the privileging of vision in Gérôme’s work, the Other, the “Oriental” remained a slippery character in the French imperial drama. All the knowledge in the world is spread out on his canvases, but it is all from the French point of view and we learn everything and nothing. In the end, all the superiority, all the power in the world could not hold the Empire together, and today, as Porterfield, pointed out, the French seem vaguely embarrassed about their role in colonialism.
Looking at Gérôme’s art in today’s world is an interesting enterprise. The colonized subjects of the French empire have long since come home to the Mother Country, unsure of their identities, as Frantz Fanon so eloquently stated in ” Black Mask, White Skins.” So thoroughly imbued with the doctrines of colonialism and imperialism, the colonized think that they are partly “French” and came to France to live, but they insist on bringing their “Oriental” culture with them. Suddenly, what seemed exotic in the Middle East caused controversy in Paris: head scarves or not? The fear of the Other continues. Gérôme, like all artists, was engaged in acts of representation; and, as for his attitudes, his biases, his complicity, his patriotism—that is for history to decide.
The Artist and History
Gérôme studied under the official juste milieu artist, Paul Delaroche, who knew how to please a crowd. He had a gift that Gérôme did not: Delaroche could move an audience with his spell binding and compelling scenes of arrested pathos. In “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey,” the blindfolded teenager, England’s nine day queen, gropes for the wooden block where she will lay her little neck. Dressed in white to emphasize her youth and innocence, the little girl who has been a pawn of reckless and ambitious adults is a triangle of pity in the center. She is flanked by the axe man, the executioner. By his side is his axe, the head of which gleams in anticipation. In Delaroche’s “Princes in the Tower,” also known as “The Children of Edward” (1831), the beautiful young princes cower in the dark alerted by a shaft of light under the closed door to their room. The minions of their evil uncle, Richard the III, are upon them. It was this master of the breathless moment who said when photography was invented, “From today, painting is dead!” It was this painter who trained some of the greatest photographers of the new era, men who transformed photography into an art form, Charles Negre and Henri Le Sec. But their photographs were doomed to be neglected and unstudied until the Twentieth century. It was another painter, his pupil, Gérôme, who would profit the most from photography.
Although Gérôme benefitted a great deal from his relationship with Goupil’s, there were many critics in his own time who were wary of the sale of reproduced paintings-as-photographs or as prints. Presaging Walter Benjamin’s observation that when art is reproduced, it loses its aura, its untouchability, its place in ritual, its role in cult, Nineteenth century critics wondered if Gérôme were cheapening himself and his art. But being under contract with the firm, the artist had little control over the fate of his images. The art firm did well for the artist, finding for him an audience of buyers for all levels of his works, from the original paintings to different kinds of reproductions, suitable to a wide range of incomes. Sadly, some of the images in the $80 Getty catalogue reproduced poorly, such as “The Death of Marshal Ney,” where the darks submerge the image into unreadability. But the original reproductions were clear in replication and enhanced the artist’s reputation everywhere. When my friend Irina was surprised that”Pollice Versoi” was now in the Phoenix Art Museum, I bet her that the original buyer was an American. I was one buyer off: the first was British, but after that, all the others were Americans in New York. New Yorkers, especially in the gilded age, as an essay in the catalogue by Mary G. Merton pointed out, loved the opulent visual excess of Gérôme and equated him with all things French. The American buyers tended to not quite understand the distinctions among French artists, and they would purchase a Renoir and a Bouguereau and a Gérôme, ignorant of theoretical debates in Paris.
But Gérôme was in the thick of the quarrel between tradition and modernity. The artist who gained the most from technology was the most hostile to artists who dared to think or paint differently. “Rodin, Pissarro, Monet, Degas are rotten scoundrels,” he exclaimed. In the “Forward, Picturing Gérôme,” the authors quoted Gérôme as objecting, among other things, to a posthumous exhibition of the art of Édouard Manet at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1884. The artist derided Manet as “…the apostle of a decadent manner, of a piecemeal art…” Manet, he continued, produced “…highly willful and lurid work…” Of the Caillebotte donation of the Impressionists to the Louvre, Gérôme raged, “I repeat, if the State has accepted such rubbish, then moral fiber has seriously withered.” This, from the master of the bared bottom. Invective, no matter how heart-felt or mainstream at the time, seldom passes the test of time. Meissonier’s prosecution of Courbet after the Commune soured his place in history, and, like Gérôme, who had nothing but spleen for dead artists, the rancor of these popular artists lost them respect from their peers and from history. The writing that accompanied the exhibition at the Getty suggests that we need to separate Gérôme’s unpleasant nature from our reconsideration of his art. The audience at the museum, however, seemed unconcerned with the issues Irina and I mulled over. On a Wednesday afternoon, crowds were large and appreciative. Gérôme would have been pleased. Back where he belonged. On top. The center of attention.
Allan, Scott and Mary Morton, eds. “Reconsidering Gérôme,” J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010
Cars, Lawrence de, et. al, “The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904),” Skira, 2010
Peltre, Christine, “Orientalism in Art,” Abbeville Press, 2005
Porterfield, Todd, “The Allure of Empire. Art in the Service of French Imperialism. 1798 – 1836,” Princeton University Press, 1998
Said, Edward, “Orientalism,” Random House, 1978
“Culture and Imperialism,” Vintage, 1994
Thornton, Lynne, “Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting,” Art Creation Realisation, 1996
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger