Pelt Merchant of Cairo, 1869, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50cm (24.2 x 19.7”), Private Collection
Jean-Léon Gérôme cast a fairly wide net in his subject matter, covering classical, historical, and Orientalist themes as he pleased. He is probably best remembered for his Orientalist work which arose from his hunger for travel and adventure. He was a man who got around.
He inspired a lot of resentment and criticism over time, perhaps because of his success which was considered by many in the French art circles to be undeserved. They would carp about inconsistencies in his paintings, Arabs at prayer with their shoes on for instance. Considering the culture of those times, it is likely he simply did not feel that accuracy was of any great importance. He was far more interested in the richness and romanticism of Islamic life, a kind of mysterious and sensual culture compared to his more restrictive upbringing.
It is hard to believe in our modern world, but there was a time when the Arab, or Moorish, ideal for design and form was greatly envied by the west. Their skill in governance also inspired jealousy. One of the longest periods of peace and prosperity among the three competing religions, the Christians, the Jews, and the Moslems occurred under Moorish rule. Our modern prejudices simply do not relate to the fascination and awe that much of Europe held for the Near East in Gérôme’s day.
Pool In A Harem, 1876, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 62cm (28.9 x 24.4”), Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Consider the astonishing use of light and color in this picture. The detail is exquisite, and if you have ever traveled in Asia Minor you can easily imagine this is a real place Gérôme visited. But if he did, he certainly came when the pool was empty. These are not Arab women, but European women, the ideal of beauty Gérôme coveted for his own fantasies. When he painted Arab women of the street, they looked appropriate, but the women of his harems always look as if they’ve stepped from a Greek sculpture garden. Consider the painting below, which I think speaks to this ideal.
Pygmalion and Galatea, ca 1890, Oil on Canvas, 88.9 x 68.6cm (35 x 27”), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This is the painting that first made me pay greater attention to Gérôme. I suppose the notion of the “created” woman is an archetype in our culture, whether Galatea from a block of stone or Eve from a break of rib. He did two versions of this, one from the front and this one. Of the two, this is far superior. As Leonard Cohen says, “I love to see you standing naked there, especially from the back.” There is a special kind of mystery and promise to this pose that makes it far sexier than frontal nudity could ever manage.
When I look at the bulk of Gérôme’s work I get the sense of a man who is wistful about a way of life that is just beyond his grasp. He painted many active landscapes, caravans setting out, armies marching, Napoleon alone and face to face with a Sphinx, both a modern and an ancient Ozymandius within a single frame. I’m not so sure that Gérôme’s critics had him right. What they took for carelessness, I take for art.
Consider his painting of Diogenes. Some people say, what’s the deal with all the dogs? Well, Diogenes came from a specific philosophical group, the Cynics. A Cynic did not mean then what it means today, but that is neither here nor there. Anyway, if you are really interested, look up the Cynics sometime. You’ll find that the word, “Cynic,” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “dog-like,” and that the Cynics themselves were nicknamed “dogs” by their contemporaries. See? Not careless, just faithful. Like a dog.
Diogenes, 1860, Oil on Canvas, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, USA