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Jean-Léon Gérôme

Jean-Léon Gérôme

Jean-Léon Gérôme

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was a French painter and sculptor whose oeuvre included historical paintings, Greek mythology, Orientalism, and portraits in the academic painting tradition.

Jean-Léon Gérôme started his artistic career in Paris about 1840, where he studied under Paul Delaroche, a painter of historical scenes, whom he accompanied to Italy. He visited Florence, Rome, the Vatican, and Pompeii.  He then attended the École des Beaux-Arts back in Paris.

In 1856, he visited Egypt for the first time. Gérôme followed the classic grand tour of most occidental visitors to the Orient; up the Nile to Cairo, across to Fayoum, 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 the Holy Land, Jerusalem and finally Damascus. This experience would herald the start of many orientalist paintings depicting Arab religion, genre scenes, and North African landscapes.

A Virtual Tour of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Art

In his autobiographical essay, Gérôme described how important oil sketches made on the spot were for him:

“even when worn out after long marched 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 the journey with some regret.”

In his last years, when he started to protest and showed public hostility to the “decadent fashion” of Impressionism, his influence began to wane, and he became unfashionable. But after the exhibition of Manet in the Ecole in 1884, he admitted that “it was not so bad as I thought.”

Jean-Léon Gérôme died in 1904 and was found in front of a portrait of Rembrandt. He was also close to his painting “Truth Coming Out of Her Well.” His Requiem Mass was attended by most of the prominent politicians, and many painters and writers. He was buried in front of the statue “Sorrow.” He had cast this statue for his son Jean who had died in 1891.

A Tour of Jean-Léon Gérôme’ Art

  • Pygmalion and Galatea
    • “Pygmalion and Galatea” by Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the sculptor Pygmalion kisses his ivory statue Galatea, after the goddess, Aphrodite has brought her to life. In Ovid’s narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. Galatea “she who is milk-white” is the name of the statue carved by Pygmalion. His figure was so beautiful and realistic that he fell in love with it. On Aphrodite’s festival day, Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite, and he made a wish. When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue and found that its lips felt warm. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s request; the ivory sculpture changed to a woman with Aphrodite’s (or Venus’ the Roman equivalent) blessing. Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET
  • The Cock Fight
    • The Cock Fight by Jean-Léon Gérôme, also known as “Young Greeks Attending a Cock Fight,” portrays two near-naked adolescents at the foot of a fountain watching the fight between the two roosters. Their youth contrasts with the weathered profile of the Sphinx and the fountain overall. This painting also represents the artist’s first great successes at the age of twenty-three. This painting has no mythological meaning. It is in the Néo-Greek (Neo-Grec) tradition, which was a Neoclassical revival style of the mid-to-late 19th century that was popularised in architecture, the decorative arts, and in painting. The Néo-Grec vogue mixed elements of growing interest in Ancient Greece and Rome into a richly colorful fantasy, seeking to capture everyday trivialities of ancient Greek life, in a manner of whimsy, grace, and charm, and was often realistic, sensual, and erotic. The Néo-Grec painters were charged with selectively adopting the ancient Greek style, in that they left out noble themes and only focused on trivial daily life, this led to accusations that they were creating art that supported the ideologies of the comfortable middle class. Museum: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
  • The Duel After the Masquerade
    • “The Duel After the Masquerade” by Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts a man dressed as a Pierrot. He has been mortally wounded in a sword duel and has collapsed into the arms of a friend. A surgeon, dressed as a Doge of Venice, tries to stop the flow of blood, while the third person dressed as a priest clutches his head. The scene is set on a grey winter morning in forest, trees bare and snow covering the ground. The survivor of the duel is dressed as an American Indian; he is shown walking away with his shoulders and head hunched down, he is supported by his second, who is dressed as Harlequin. The wounded man is still holding his sword, in contrast to the victor who has dropped his sword, suggesting that the wounded duelist started the contest of honor. The bizarreness of the scene with all the characters dressed for a Masquerade. The brightly colored costumes had turned into a tragedy. Museum: Walters Art Museum
  • Phryne before the Areopagus
    • “Phryne before the Areopagus” by Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts Phryne, a legendary courtesan in ancient Greece who was put on trial for impiety. The speech from the prosecutor seemed to be successfully influencing the verdict to an unfavorable outcome for Phryne. So as a last resort, her defender, the famous orator Hypereides, removed Phryne’s robes to bare her breasts and beauty before the judges to arouse their pity and turn the tide of opinion. Phryne’s beauty caused the judges to adopt a superstitious fear that they could not bring themselves to condemn “a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite” to death. They decided to acquit her out of pity and fear of retribution from the gods that gave Phryne her beauty. The trial of Phryne has inspired many works of art. Museum: Kunsthalle Hamburg
  • Pollice Verso
    • Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts the thumbs-down gesture given by spectators at the Colosseum to the victorious gladiator during the Roman Imperial age. The defeated gladiator with the foot to his throat has raised his two fingers to plead for mercy. The phrase “Pollice Verso” is from the Latin phrase “with a turned thumb” and is the eponymous Roman gesture directed to the winning gladiator. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting included several fallen gladiators, Vestals in white, a mass of spectators, and the emperor in the imperial box. As a historical painting of the era, Pollice Verso was popular with viewers affording them a sense of moral superiority over previous cultures. This painting has been an inspiration for statues, pictures, films, and images of Gladiators. Museum:  Phoenix Art Museum

Jean-Léon Gérôme

A Tour of Artists


“I prefer three touches of color on a piece of canvas to the most vivid memory.”
– Jean-Léon Gérôme


Photo Credit: 1) Fernand Cormon [Public domain]

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