Sunday, 24 June 2012


“Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” - Edward Said

For Art Sunday today, Jean Léon Gérôme who was born May 11th, 1824, in Vesoul, France and died January 10th, 1904, in Paris. He was a French painter, sculptor, and art teacher. Son of a goldsmith, he studied in Paris and painted melodramatic and often erotic historical and mythological compositions, excelling as a draughtsman in the linear style of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, work typical of the Academicism.

His best-known works are scenes inspired by several visits to the Orient and Egypt. In his later years he produced mostly sculpture. He exerted much influence as a teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts; his pupils included Odilon Redon and Thomas Eakins. A staunch defender of the academic tradition, he tried in 1893 to block the government’s acceptance of the Impressionist works bequeathed by Gustave Caillebotte.

In 1853, Gérôme moved to the Boîte à Thé, a group of studios in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris. This would become a meeting place for other artists, writers and actors. George Sand entertained in the small theatre of the studio the great artists of her time such as the composers Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms and Gioachino Rossini and the novelists Théophile Gautier and Ivan Turgenev.

He started an independent atelier at his house in the Rue de Bruxelles between 1860 and 1862. He was appointed as one of the three professors at the École des Beaux-Arts. He started with sixteen students, most who had come over from his own studio. His influence became extensive and he was a regular guest of Empress Eugénie at the Imperial Court in Compiègne. When he started to protest and show a public hostility to “decadent fashion” of Impressionism, his influence started to wane and he became unfashionable. But after the exhibition of Manet in the École in 1884, he eventually admitted that impressionism “was not so bad as I thought”…

The painting here, “Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard” is typical of the Orientalist style, of which Gérôme was a prime proponent. Orientalism is a term used by art historians, literary and cultural studies scholars for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Middle Eastern, and East Asian cultures (Eastern cultures) by American and European writers, designers and artists. In particular, Orientalist painting, depicting more specifically “the Middle East”, was one of the many specialisms of 19th century Academic art. Since the publication of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, the term has arguably acquired a negative connotation. This is especialy the case in the art of Gérôme, where in the wake of the burgeoning movement of impressionism, his art became old-fashioned and subject to derision by the new wave of moderns.

As an academic painting this is masterly, with beautiful composition and remarkable touches of colour, movement and an evocation of lofty space. The contrast of the “imprisoned” harem women with the soaring freedom of the pigeons is an obvious thematic element of the painting. As far as Gérôme’s style is concerned, this is typical of his orientalist paintings and one that is rather modest, given that he often took the opportunity to include sumptuous nudes of women in his paintings – something always popular with his (male) patrons as an example of respectable erotica…

1 comment:

  1. Jean Léon Gérôme and the other Orientalist artists loved the countries they visited, in North Africa, Turkey or the Middle East. The artists may have fantasised a bit about how much they really saw, but that was never racism in the way that Said meant it.

    The local characters were rarely shown as uneducated creatures who depended on violence to keep order. Even when he made mistakes, Gérôme seemed to me to be showing admiration for a foreign culture, not contempt.