Jean-Léon Gérôme was a French painter and sculptor in the style now known as academicism. His paintings were so widely reproduced that he was "arguably the world's most famous living artist by 1880." The range of his oeuvre included historical painting, Greek mythology, Orientalism, portraits, and other subjects, bringing the academic painting tradition to an artistic climax. He is considered one of the most important painters from this academic period. He was also a teacher with a long list of students.
Jean-Léon Gérôme was born at Vesoul, Haute-Saône. He went to Paris in 1840 where he studied under Paul Delaroche, whom he accompanied to Italy in 1843. He visited Florence, Rome, the Vatican and Pompeii. On his return to Paris in 1844, like many students of Delaroche, he joined the atelier of Charles Gleyre and studied there for a brief time. He then attended the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1846 he tried to enter the prestigious Prix de Rome, but failed in the final stage because his figure drawing was inadequate.
His painting The Cock Fight (1846) is an academic exercise depicting a nude young man and a very thinly draped young woman with two fighting cocks, with the Bay of Naples in the background. He sent this painting to the Paris Salon of 1847, where it gained him a third-class medal. This work was seen as the epitome of the Neo-Grec movement that had formed out of Gleyre's studio (including Henri-Pierre Picou and Jean-Louis Hamon), and was championed by the influential French critic Théophile Gautier, whose review made Gérôme famous and effectively launched his career.
Gérôme abandoned his dream of winning the Prix de Rome and took advantage of his sudden success. His paintings The Virgin, the Infant Jesus and Saint John and Anacreon, Bacchus and Eros took a second-class medal at the Paris Salon in 1848. In 1849, he produced the paintings Michelangelo (also called In his Studio) and A Portrait of a Lady.
In 1851, he decorated a vase later offered by Emperor Napoleon III of France to Prince Albert, now part of the Royal Collection at St. James's Palace, London. He exhibited Greek Interior, Souvenir d'Italie, Bacchus and Love, Drunk in 1851; Paestum in 1852; and An Idyll in 1853.
In 1852, Gérôme received a commission to paint a large mural of an allegorical subject of his choosing. The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ, which combined the birth of Christ with conquered nations paying homage to Augustus, may have been intended to flatter Napoleon III, whose government commissioned the mural and who was identified as a "new Augustus." A considerable down payment enabled Gérôme to travel and research, first in 1853 to Constantinople, together with the actor Edmond Got, and in 1854 to Greece and Turkey and the shores of the Danube, where he was present at a concert of Russian conscripts making music under the threat of a lash.
In 1853, Gérôme moved to the Boîte à Thé, a group of studios in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris. This became a meeting place for artists, writers and actors, where George Sand entertained the composers: Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms and Gioachino Rossini and the novelists Théophile Gautier and Ivan Turgenev.
In 1854, he completed another important commission, decorating the Chapel of St. Jerome in the church of St. Séverin in Paris. His Last Communion of St. Jerome in this chapel reflects the influence of the school of Ingres on his religious works.
To the Universal Exhibition of 1855 he contributed Pifferaro, Shepherd, and The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ, but it was the modest painting Recreation in a Russian Camp that garnered the most attention.
In 1856, Gérôme visited Egypt for the first time. His itinerary followed the classic Grand Tour of the Near East, up the Nile to Cairo, across to Faiyum, then further up the Nile to Abu Simbel, then back to Cairo, across the Sinai Peninsula through Sinai and up the Wadi el-Araba to Jerusalem and finally Damascus. This heralded the start of many Orientalist paintings depicting Arab religious practice, genre scenes and North African landscapes.
Among these are paintings in which the Oriental setting is combined with depictions of female nudity. The Slave Market, The Large Pool of Bursa, Pool in a Harem, and similar subjects were works of imagination in which Gérôme combined accurately observed Middle Eastern architectural details with idealized nudes painted in his Paris studio. (In 2019, the right wing populist German party, Alternative for Germany, used The Slave Market in a campaign poster in the 2019 European Parliament election.)
In his travels, Gérôme collected artefacts and costumes for staging oriental scenes in the studio, and also made oil studies from nature for the backgrounds. In an autobiographical essay of 1878, Gérôme described how important oil sketches made on the spot were for him: "Even when worn out after long marches under the bright sun, as soon as our camping spot was reached I got down to work with concentration. But Oh! How many things were left behind of which I carried only the memory away! And I prefer three touches of color on a piece of canvas to the most vivid memory, but one had to continue on with some regret."
Gérôme's reputation was greatly enhanced at the Paris Salon of 1857 by his display of Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert, Memnon and Sesostris, Camels Watering, and Suite d'un bal masqué (purchased by the duc d'Aumale, now in the Musée Condé in Chantilly; a copy made by Gérôme in 1859, The Duel After the Masquerade, is in the Walters Art Museum).
In 1858, he helped to decorate the Paris house of Prince Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte in the Pompeian style. The prince had bought his Greek Interior (1850), a depiction of a brothel also in the Pompeian manner.
In Ave Caesar! Morituri te Salutant, shown at the Salon of 1859, Gérôme returned to the painting of Classical subjects, but the picture failed to interest the public. King Candaules (1859) and Phryne Before the Areopagus and Socrates Seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia (both 1861) gave rise to some scandal by reason of the subjects selected by the painter, and inspired bitter attacks by Paul de Saint-Victor and Maxime Du Camp. Also at the 1861 Salon he exhibited Egyptian Chopping Straw and Rembrandt Biting an Etching, two very minutely finished works.
In 1863, he married Marie Goupil (1842–1912), the daughter of the international art dealer Adolphe Goupil. They had four daughters and one son. His oldest daughter was Jeanne (1863-1944) and she was followed by Suzanne (1867-1941; married to Aimé Morot), Blanche (1868-1918) and Madeleine (1875-1905). Upon his marriage he moved to a house in the Rue de Bruxelles, close to the Folies Bergère. He expanded it into a grand house with stables with a sculpture studio below and a painting studio on the top floor.
Gérôme was appointed as one of the three professors at the École des Beaux-Arts. He started with sixteen students. Between 1864 and 1904, more than 2,000 students received at least some of their art education through Gérôme's atelier at the École des Beaux-Arts. Places in Gérôme's atelier were limited, keenly sought and highly competitive. Only the best students were admitted and aspirants considered it an honour to be selected. Gérôme progressed his students through drawing from antique works, casts and followed by life study with live models generally selected on the basis of their physique, but occasionally for their facial expression in a sequence of exercises known as the academie. Students drew parts of a bust before the entire bust, then parts of the live model before preparing full figures. Only when they had mastered sketching were they permitted to work in oils. They were also taught to draw clearly and correctly before consideration of tonal qualities. In his school, the floor sloped so that students had the fullest view of the model from the rear of the room. Students sat around any model in order of seniority, with the more senior students towards the rear so that they could draw the full figure, while the more junior members sat towards the front and concentrated on the bust or other part of the anatomy.
According to John Milner, who studied with Gérôme, his atelier was the most "riotous" and "lewd" of all the studios at Beaux-Arts. Students were treated to bizarre initiation rites which included slashing each other's canvases, throwing students down stairs, out of windows, and onto upturned stools, staging fencing matches on the model's dais, in the nude and with paintbrushes loaded with paint.
Gérôme attended every Wednesday and Saturday, demanding punctilious attendance to his instructions. His reputation as a severe critic was well-known. One of his American students, Stephen Wilson Van Shaick, commented that Gérôme was "merciless in judgement" yet possessed a "singular magnetism." Although Gérôme was very demanding of his students, he offered them considerable assistance outside Beaux-Arts, inviting them to his personal studio, making recommendations to the Salon on their behalf, and encouraging them to study with his colleagues.
Gérôme was elected, on his fifth attempt, a member of the Institut de France in 1865. Already a knight in the Légion d'honneur, he was promoted to an officer in 1867. In 1869, he was elected an honorary member of the British Royal Academy. The King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, awarded him the Grand Order of the Red Eagle, Third Class. His influence became extensive and he was a regular guest of Empress Eugénie at the Imperial Court in Compiègne. Along with the most eminent French artists, he was invited to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français (Society of French Orientalist Painters), founded in 1893, named Gérôme honorary president.
The Execution of Marshal Ney was exhibited at the Salon of 1868. On behalf of Ney's descendants, Gérôme was asked to withdraw the painting, but did not comply. The general reception was very split and the 1868 Salon marked the beginning of a lasting divide between Gérôme and many French art critics, who accused him of relying on literary techniques, of commercialising art, and of bringing politics into art. Henri Oulevay made a caricature where Gérôme is depicted in front of the wall with the art critics as the firing squad.
In 1872 Gérôme produced Pollice Verso, a painting of bloody gladiators and blood-thirsty Vestal virgins in the Colosseum that became one of his most famous works. Alexander Turney Stewart purchased the painting from Gérôme at a price of 80,000 francs, setting a new record for the artist. Gérôme's imagery of the turned thumb to signal life or death for a fallen gladiator was repeated in a multitude of movies, from the silent era up to and including the 2000 Oscar-winner Gladiator.
Gérôme returned successfully to the Salon in 1873 with his painting L'Eminence Grise (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a colorful depiction of the main stair hall of the palace of Cardinal Richelieu, popularly known as the Red Cardinal (L'Eminence Rouge), who was France's de facto ruler under King Louis XIII beginning in 1624. In the painting, François Le Clerc du Trembly, a Capuchin friar dubbed L'Eminence Grise (the Gray Cardinal), descends the ceremonial staircase immersed in reading the Bible while all others either bow before him or fix their gaze on him. As Richelieu's chief adviser, L'Eminence Grise was called "the power behind the throne," which became the known definition of his title.
In his thirties, Gérôme took up sculpture. His first work was a large bronze statue of a gladiator holding his foot on his victim, based on his painting Pollice Verso (1872) and shown to the public at the Universal Exhibition of 1878. The same year he exhibited a marble statue at the Salon of 1878, based on his early painting Anacreon, Bacchus and Eros (1848).
Aware of contemporary experiments of tinting marble (such as by those by John Gibson), he produced Dancer with Three Masks combining movement with color, first exhibited in 1902 and now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen.
Among his other sculptures are Omphale (1887) and the statue of the duc d'Aumale which stands in front of the Château de Chantilly (1899).
He experimented with mixed ingredients, using for his statues tinted marble, bronze and ivory inlaid with precious stones and paste. His Dancer was exhibited in 1891. His lifesize statue Bellona, in ivory, bronze, and gemstones, attracted great attention at the 1892 exhibition in the Royal Academy of London.
Gérôme then began a series of conquerors, wrought in gold, silver and gems: Bonaparte Entering Cairo (1897), Tamerlane (1898), and Frederick the Great (1899).
In 1903 Gérôme executed a two sculpture commission, Metallugical Worker and Metallurgical Science for the American millionaire Charles M. Schwab meant to glorify Steel production. Schwab sent an actual steel worker to Paris to pose for the works.
During the last decades of his career, as his own work fell out of fashion, Gérôme was harshly critical of Impressionism. In 1894, he caused a scandal over his opposition to the Caillebotte bequest to the state which eventually became the foundation of the Musée d'Orsay collection. He organized a public demonstration in his atelier and gave interviews to reporters, including these comments published in the journal L'Éclair:
The Institut de France cannot remain still before such a scandal...How can the government dare welcome such a collection of inanities into a museum? Why, have you seen the collection? The state, the ward of such junk!... What lessons are our young artists going to receive from now on? They'll all start to do Impressionism! Ah! these people believe they are painting nature, nature so admirable in all its manifestations! What pretension! Nature is not for them! This Monet, do you remember his cathedrals? And that man used to know how to paint! Yes, I've seen good things by him, but now!
Similarly he objected to the Manet memorial exhibition at the École des Beaux Arts in 1884. But he did attend the opening, after which he paid Manet the backhanded compliment that the exhibition was "not so bad as I thought."
Beginning in 1890, Gerome again drew inspiration from the ancient world with an interconnected, slyly self-referential series of paintings and sculptures that depicted Pygmalion and Galatea; the spirit of Tanagra; and himself.
In 1890, Gérôme made at least two paintings of the mythical Greek sculptor Pygmalion kissing his statue of Galatea at the very moment she is transformed from marble into living flesh. The most famous of these paintings titled Pygmalion and Galatea is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it shows the sculptor and his living statue from the rear. A variation (in private hands) shows them from the front.
Also in 1890, responding to widespread fascination with the ancient Tanagra figurines recently excavated in Greece, Gérôme sculpted the 5-foot-high, tinted-marble Tanagra, a female nude personifying the Tyche, or presiding spirit, of the ancient city. She holds on her upraised palm a figurine of a female Hoop Dancer (Gérôme's own invention, inspired by, but not a copy of, an actual Tanagra figurine). "Inspired by his characteristic desire for both archaeological accuracy and realism, Gérôme delicately tinted the skin, hair, lips, and nipples of his Tanagra, causing a sensation at the Salon of 1890."
Gérôme subsequently created smaller, gilded bronze versions of Tanagra; several versions of the "Hoop Dancer" figurine held by Tanagra (these became "Gérôme's most popular and widely reproduced sculpture"); two paintings of an imaginary ancient Tanagra workshop where copies of his own Hoop Dancer are on display; and two self-portraits of himself sculpting Tanagra from a living model in his Paris atelier, in which a Hoop Dancer and two different versions of Pygmalion and Galatea can be seen in the background. This complex self-portrait has been called "a summation of Gérôme's remarkable career as both painter and sculptor."
Gérôme also sculpted a tinted-marble Pygmalion and Galatea (1891) based on his paintings.
In this cycle of works, with its exploration of Classical antiquity, creative inspiration, doppelgängers, and female beauty, we see Gérôme "powerfully evoking the continuous interplay between painting and sculpture, reality and artifice, as well as highlighting the inherently theatrical nature of the artist's studio."
Beginning in the mid-1890s, in the last decade of his life, Gérôme made at least four paintings personifying Truth as a nude woman, either thrown into, at the bottom of, or emerging from a well. The imagery was inspired by an aphorism of the philosopher Democritus, "Of truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well."
Truth Coming Out of Her Well, Armed with Her Whip to Chastise Mankind was exhibited in the Salon du Champ de Mars of 1896. It has been assumed that the painting was a comment on the Dreyfus affair, but art historian Bernard Tillier argues that Gérôme's images of Truth and the well were part of his ongoing diatribe against Impressionism.
Gérôme himself invoked the metaphor of Truth and the well in a preface he wrote for Émile Bayard's Le Nu Esthétique, published in 1902, to characterize the profound and irreversible influence of photography:
La photographie est un art. La photographie force les artistes à se dépouiller de la vieille routine et à oublier les vieilles formules. Elle nous a ouvert les yeux et forcé à regarder ce qu'auparavant nous n'avions jamais vu, service considérable et inappréciable qu'elle a rendu à l'Art. C'est grâce à elle que la vérité est enfin sortie de son puits. Elle n'y rentrera plus.
Photography is an art. It forces artists to discard their old routine and forget their old formulas. It has opened our eyes and forced us to see that which previously we have not seen; a great and inexpressible service for Art. It is thanks to photography that Truth has finally come out of her well. She will never go back.
In 2012, the Musée Anne de Beaujeu in Moulins, France, which now owns the painting, mounted the exhibition La vérité est au musée ("Truth is at the Museum"), which collected numerous drawings, sketches, and variants made by Gérôme, and by other artists, relating to the painting and its theme. The multiple interpretations of the painting's enigmatic meaning prompted one of the museum's curators to say, "C'est notre Joconde à nous." ("This is our Mona Lisa.")
By the end of his life, Gérôme felt very much a man out of his time. In 1903, recalling his first meeting with Charles Jalabert in 1840, he wrote:
At that time, Paris had nothing to do with the Paris of today: no railways, no bicycles, no cars; we were less agitated, and certain districts, among others the one we lived in and which we called the Latin Quarter, had a provincial aspect in their calm and tranquility. Now everything is changed; we no longer walk, we run like crazy; if we are not crushed during the day, we have a good chance of being murdered at night. It is charming. We have witnessed the end of a world, we are witnessing the dawn of a new one, which lacks the picturesque and above all serenity. The day is not far off when, through our customs, our ways of being, our love of the dollar (auri sacra fames), we will no longer be French, neither in spirit nor in heart. Horrible to think of! We will be Americans!
On 31 December 1903, Gérôme wrote to his student and former assistant Albert Aublet, "I begin to have enough of life. I've seen too much misery and misfortune in the lives of others. I still see it every day, and I'm getting eager to escape this theatre." He was to live just ten more days.
On 10 January 1904, "the maid found him dead in the little room next to his atelier, slumped in front of a portrait of Rembrandt and at the foot of his own painting Truth"—but the source for this anecdote, the biographer Moreau-Vauthier, does not specify which painting of Truth. He was 79.
At his own request, he was given a simple burial service without flowers. But the Requiem Mass given in his memory was attended by a former president of the Republic, most prominent politicians, and many painters and writers. He was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in front of the statue La Douleur (Pain), which he had cast for his son Jean who had died in 1891.
Gérôme's legacy lived on through the works of his thousands of students from many countries, including: Odilon Redon, Mary Cassatt, Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin, Stanisław Chlebowski, Ahmed Ali Bey, Henri-Camille Danger and Hosui Yamamoto, and many who traveled to Paris from the United States to study under him, including Thomas Eakins, Edwin Lord Weeks, and Gottardo Piazzoni.
Gérôme's prodigious energy, long career, and wide popularity resulted in an enormous body of work that now resides in museums and private collections around the world; Ackerman's revised catalogue raisonné of 2018 lists approximately 700 paintings and 70 sculptures.
In the early 1870s Gérôme was known for an astonishing range of visual exotica, all realized in precise, minute detail, achieved with thin layers of paint that revealed nary a brushstroke...His works were particularly sought after by wealthy Americans...Over the course of his career, Gérôme sold to American patrons 144 paintings, nearly a quarter of his production. [A work by Gérôme in the Nob Hill mansion of Leland Stanford was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.] Despite his prodigious output and enormous transatlantic success, most scholarly articles of recent decades cite Gérôme's work as a noxious blend of the trite, the exploitative and the stultifying academic. However, the latest scholarship is re-evaluating Gérôme and his importance in the nineteenth century. A 2010 essay by art historian Mary G. Morton…points out that, contrary to most twenty- and twenty-first century perspectives…Americans [in the 1800s] found Gérôme's paintings complex, edifying and completely modern.
His well-researched and minutely detailed images of gladiator combats, chariot races, slave markets, and many other subjects from the ancient world created an indelible impression on popular culture.
His ethnographic imagery of Arab and Islamic culture, controversial in his own lifetime, is now even more closely scrutinized, as is his penchant for female nudity; modern critics raise issues of "cultural appropriation" and "sexual exploitation". These issues of sex and race were epitomized by the use in 2019 of his painting The Slave Market in an anti-Muslim campaign poster by the right wing populist German party, Alternative for Germany, to the consternation of the American museum that owns the painting.
Despite charges that the Orientalizing paintings of Gérôme (and others) exploited and indulged in stereotypes of Arab and Muslim cultures, there is now "a high level of interest in collecting Gérôme's art in the Middle East," as evinced by high prices paid at auction for his work by the Qatar Museums Authority in Doha. "They want to take it back and have it for themselves," says art historian Emily M. Weeks. Egyptian industrialist and art collector Shafik Gabr sees Gérôme and other Orientalist painters as "intrepid early globalists who put themselves at risk to document a new world opened by Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition from 1798 to 1801…'I have been inspired by these painters…These people traveled under very difficult circumstances with no knowledge of what to expect. They didn't travel to conquer or find oil. They traveled to discover and to understand.'"
Gérôme's highly vocal opposition to Impressionism was a losing argument, and his work was relegated to the margins of art history by critics, historians, and museum professionals who believed that
his chosen themes corrupted the loftier purposes of art, thus leading to commercialism...they also objected to his orientalism, which they disparaged for being untrue, a perversion or concoction of the true Orient....Now, with the exhibition at the Getty Museum, and a larger version of the show opening at the Musée d'Orsay in October 2010, Gérôme is finally receiving the attention he deserves. No longer will he be lost in time, although his paintings, the way he developed them, and his relationship with many of the major issues of artistic creativity in the nineteenth century and beyond will remain controversial.
As with other painters of Classical Realism and Academic art of the 19th century, Gérôme's prestige and popularity sharply declined in the 20th century; his painting The Snake Charmer, which sold for $19,500 in 1888, sold for $500 in 1942. Now his works are once again sought-after in the international art market. In 2008, his painting Femme circassienne voilée or Veiled Circassian Beauty (1876) was auctioned for 2,057,250 GBP; it now belongs to the Qatar Museums Authority in Doha. In 2019, his painting The Harem in the Kiosk (c. 1870–1875) realized 2,655,000 GBP at auction, and his painting Riders Crossing the Desert (1870) realized 3,135,000 GBP.
The most wide-ranging single collection of Gérôme's work may be the several rooms dedicated to displaying his paintings and sculptures at the Musée Georges-Garret in the artist's hometown of Vesoul. Gérôme donated several works to the museum during his lifetime, and his heirs donated more works after his death.