Jean-Léon Gérôme

Paris, Musée d’Orsay, from 19 October 2010 to 23 January 2011
Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, from 1st March to 22 May 2011
The exhibition was shown previously at the Getty Museum from 15 June to 12 September 2010

1. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Portrait of a Woman, 1851
Oil on canvas - 92.6 x 73.7 cm
Chicago, Art Institute
Photo : Art Institute of Chicago

With the Cabanel retrospective still on in Montpellier (see article), the Musée d’Orsay is highlighting Jean-Léon Gérôme while also presenting an exhibition on Claude Monet at the Grand Palais. This is no coincidence, simply proof that French museums are finally exploring the panorama of French art without having to justify their choices. Appreciating Cabanel and Monet is perfectly understandable today. In the same way, art lovers can enjoy both Gérôme and Manet without having to apologize and yet still see the difference between the latter’s genius and the other’s talent.

This virtual long-distance juxtaposition of Cabanel-Gérôme is in fact fascinating as it shows that what is called “art pompier” does not exist. The differences between the two painters, although contemporaries and equally scorned, are much greater than those found between Monet, Sisley and Pissarro. Impressionism is a movement, Academism is not. Cabanel, we wrote (and we are not alone in our opinion [1]), was a late Romantic, something which Gérôme never was. Their portraits are not at all the same, those by Gérôme being, much like most of his paintings, extremely polished, very detailed, with cold colours, much closer to Ingres finally than to the Pompiers, as shown by the magnificent Portrait of a Woman from Chicago (ill. 1). In many of his historical scenes, Gérôme is an illustrator who paints, as did Doré for instance, although in an entirely different manner and this is not a criticicism as the exhibition demonstrates that Gérôme was a great painter.

2. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Jerusalem or Calvary, 1867
Oil on canvas - 82 x 144.5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay

3. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
The Death of Caesar, 1859-1867
Oil on canvas - 85.5 x 145.5 cm
Baltimore, Walter Arts Gallery
Photo : The Walter Arts Gallery

True, unlike Cabanel, Gérôme was violently opposed to Impressionism with which he had nothing in common, which he did not understand and which he combated. But should his painting be judged on the basis of what he did or did not espouse ? Is an unlikeable painter necessarily a bad artist ? Having disposed of any consideration which does not relate directly to art per se, let us try to look at Gérôme’s painting and appreciate it – or not – on its own merits.
To do this, we will for once begin at the end, with a surprising canvas which does not correspond to any tradition, any previous example. This is Consummatus est (ill. 2), astutely acquired by the Musée d’Orsay in 1990. In this work, Gérôme literally invents an iconography, a skill not shared by just any artist. We see the crowd leaving Golgotha after the crucifixion, without ever witnessing Christ on the cross except for a shadow appearing in the foreground alongside the two thieves. Not only is this a new image, the narrative itself is totally original as the artist has focused on the moment following the climax of the scene, when in fact there is nothing else happening. Before this, artists would paint the Crucifixion, or the Deposition from the Cross. Here, the moment is suspended between the two. “It Is Finished”, this title could also apply in fact to The Death of Caesar (ill. 3) and to 7 December 1815, Nine o’clock in the Morning (ill. 4), depicting the execution of Marshall Ney. In these three paintings, the crime has been completed, the executioners are leaving. Consummatus Est and 7 December 1815 were presented together at the Salon of 1815 where they were roundly criticized for lack of understanding.

4. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
7 December 1815, Nine o’clock in the Morning. The execution of
Marshall Ney
, 1867
Oil on canvas - 65.2 x 104.2 cm
Sheffield, City Art Gallery
Photo : Museums Sheffield / Bridgeman Giraudon

5. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Pollice Verso, 1872
Oil on canvas - 97.5 x 146.7 cm
Phoenix, Art Museum
Photo : Art Museum de Phoenix

When attempting to rehabilitate an “official” painter from the second half of the 19th century, critics should stop insisting in associating him at all costs to “modernity” as is usually the case. But Guy Cogeval is right when speaking of Gérôme’s “audacities”. This is not an attempt to compare his art to that of the Impressionists, which would simply be ridiculous, but to underscore the radical innovation of some aspects of his painting, particularly his ties to film making, acknowledged even by his detractors. Yet the paintings we mentioned above date from the late 1860’s, his first representations of circus games from about ten years earlier and results in 1872 in Pollice Verso (ill. 5) which inspired Ridley Scott for his Gladiator. Gérôme, therefore, undeniably anticipated the birth of cinematic art, more so in fact than Cabanel. He was no doubt spurred by the advent of photography which he used extensively both for inspiration or to reproduce his paintings, as well as by the development throughout the 19th century of the painted scenes provided by dioramas and panoramas. So, Gérôme’s modernity is obvious, as it is also in his, almost, infinite repetitions of his compositions, an industry which Philippe Dagen, more pertinently than in the case of Cabanel, ties in with such contemporary practices as those employed by Koons and Murakami.

6. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Bellona, 1892
Bronze, golden bronze,
polychrome wood, glass - 87 x 47 x 30 cm
Vesoul, Musée Georges Garret
Photo : RMN /

This exhibition is in fact a fine achievement, whether or not one likes Gérôme. The same quality is apparent in the layout and presentation with background colours enhancing the works, as well as the selection and arrangement blending chronological and thematic groupings, always the best choice for a monographic exhibition when well done as is the case here. The catalogue shows a remarkable amount of work although it might have been even better with a bit more coordination. A pressing deadline no doubt accounts for some repetitions in certain articles (fortunately, with no contradictions). Unlike Cabanel, this is not a comprehensive catalogue as there is already one [2]. We therefore regret only a total lack of commentary on Gérôme’s religious painting. Although, contrary to many other 19th century painters, he did few church décors, they do exist however, for example the Saint Jerome chapel at the church of Saint Séverin and the refectory at the monastery of Saint Martin des Champs (today the Musée des Arts et Métiers) where the décor was senselessly destroyed in 1965. The exhibition would also have benefited from presenting more drawings.
However, the section on sculptures is well developed, offering notably the plaster cast for Corinth acquired by Orsay in 2008 (see news item of 5/07/08) alongside its painted marble translation perched on a marble and bronze column. The study of painting in sculpture and architecture is also another aspect of 19th century art, at least since Hittorf. A late arrival at sculpting, Gérôme worked on different colour effects through the use of materials as in the head of Bellona (ill. 6), and also painting directly on the plaster or marble. How sad (and this is an understatement) that the restorers at the Louvre in the 1950’s were a bit too zealous in cleaning Tanagra thus eliminating its delicate polychromatic finish.

7. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Cockfight, 1846
Oil on canvas - 143 x 204 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Osay

8. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
The Muezzin, 1866
Oil on canvas - 100 x 83.8 cm
Omaha, Joslyn Museum of Art
Photo : Joslyn Museum of Art

In the late 1840’s, Gérôme launched a movement called “Neo-Greek” along with some friends which only lasted about ten years, exemplified in the famous Cockfight from Orsay (ill. 7). His many trips to the Middle East, Egypt, Palestine and Turkey, then led him to Orientalism, a term encompassing content and not style.
Some of these works are among the artist’s most rejected works, at times rightly so. There is indeed a touch of vulgarity or shoddy eroticism in such canvases as The Dance of the Almeh from the Dayton Art Institute and The Slave Market from Williamstown. But there are only a few and they do not detract from the many masterpieces inspired by these countries. How can we not admire for example, The Muezzin from the museum in Omaha (ill. 8) or The Wailing Wall from a private collection (cat. 149) ? How to resist the pull of the magnificent landscape, the extraordinary silence of a scene like The Excursion of the Harem (Norfolk Chrysler Museum of Art, cat. 129) ? His Orientalist painting might be seen as misogynist, celebrating men, but that would be forgetting that the world he painted was just that.
Before leaving Gérôme’s Orientalist world, we must evoke his art of painting wild animals. One of the most beautiful canvases in the exhibition is undoubtedly his Lion on the Watch from Cleveland (ill. 9) although he quite surely never saw the animal in nature and only imagined it. Clearly, Gérôme invented, or as the catalogue so aptly explains, re-invented. He imagined the décor in his scenes based on real elements thus achieving something which is more plausible than existing in actual fact. The end result is a far cry from realism or a photographic imitation as is sometimes said. This does not mean he is indifferent to verisimilitude. As opposed to a statement in one of the catalogue essays [3], the bashi-bazouks in the foreground of Prayer in the Mosque (Metropolitan Museum, cat. 146) are indeed barefoot, and not wearing shoes. Gérôme would have never made such a mistake.

9. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Lion on the Watch, c. 1885
Oil on panel - 72.3 x 100.5 cm
Cleveland, Museum of Art
Photo : Cleveland, Museum of Art

1. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Bashi-Bazouk, 1868-1869
Oil on canvas - 80.6 x 66 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : Metropolitan Museum

Regrettably, the Bashi-bazouk (ill. 10) recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum (see news item of 21/06/10), a magnificent portrait which reveals Gérôme’s empathy towards the subjects he painted, is missing from the exhibition. Unfortunately also, the show ends with something closer to an amateurish joke, a shop sign in the form of a puzzle (Enseigne pour un opticien (O pti cien), [Sign for an Optician], cat. 113) which adds nothing to Gérôme, the allusion to Marcel Duchamp in this case falling a bit flat.

Collective work, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). L’histoire en spectacle, Musée d’Orsay / Editions Skira-Flammarion, 2010, 371 p., 49€, ISBN : 9782081241862.

Visitor information : Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 62 rue de Lille, 75343 Paris Cedex 07. Tel : +33 (0)1 40 49 48 14. Open every day except Monday from 9.30 am to 6 pm ; on Thursdays from 9.30 am to 9.45 pm. Tickets : 8 € (full price), 5.50 € (reduced rate).

Didier Rykner, vendredi 12 novembre 2010


[1] See notably Vincent Noce’s review in Libération.

[2] Gerald Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Editions ACR, Courbevoie, 2000.

[3] Sophie Makariou and Charlotte Maury, Le paradoxe du réalisme, Gérôme en Orient, p. 260.

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