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Gérôme le Grand

Jean-Léon Gérôme 015 Carpets
The Carpet Merchant,1887

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Academic painter and sculptor was born on this day in Vesoul, Eastern France in 1824. It's hard to define Gérôme in terms of style or subject matter, since he painted so many different types of subjects and themes...historical scenes, Orientalist portraits and landscapes, Napolean, animals, nudes, religious scenes, and occasionally breathtaking landscapes. It seems that whatever his brush touched, stunning beauty was always the result. In many ways, Gérôme's art is a summary of everything that came before his time in that what he absorbed from the Renaissance, the Venetians, Baroque, and his French contemporaries he was able to merge into his own vision. While most artists have certain strengths that make them distinctly recognizable, Gérôme is one of those artists who seems to have had few weaknesses (except for his draftsmanship, which cost him membership into the Prix de Rome). He was a master of color also. His portraits defined modern portraiture and his influence is easily seen today, even in photography. His figures are strong, sensual, and natural. Whether historical or contemporary, his subjects seem timeless, short, there was virtually nothing Gérôme could not paint. And his long, long list of students is also a tribute to his legacy as one of the great art instructors in history.

In the above painting, we see an ingenious arrangement of detail, texture, color and space. Gérôme uses complementary colors to pull our eyes toward the main rug hanging from the wall and along the smaller ones strewn across the stone floor, forming an L-shaped composition. With the figures examining the rugs Gérôme does some very, very clever color harmonies: the two men standing side-by-side are in near complementary yellow-orange to blue. Yet if we look at the man in red standing next to the one in blue, Gérôme uses their robes and turbans to alternate complementary colors: blue to yellow-orange, and green to red. The remaining figures have greens with both neutral and blues, while the man with the capri-like pants to the left has red-green with blue-black, something unique to contrast with the brightness of the others and lead our eye up the main carpet. I like how Gérôme places his figures also— three figures wide apart with unique arm positions contrasted with three figures tightly arranged and in perspective. Looking up at the men who are looking down at the scene below, they are arranged in an asymmetrical way towards the left to keep our eyes centered. The contrast of intricate detail with ornate stonework of the walls is also interesting, visually. And to tie it all up, Gérôme creates a unique sense of space by making the scene in two-point perspective to keep our eyes on the key elements. What is interesting is even with the attention to design and detail, Gérôme still conjures mystery with the background figures under the arch and especially with the figure in blue, hiding in the shadows of the doorway...everything is about presence here.

Gérôme-Black Bashi-Bazouk-c. 1869
Black Bashi-Bazouk, ca. 1869

This portrait of an Ottoman irregular soldier, or Bashi-bazouk shows the free-spirited independence of these fighters by the lack of military uniform and exotic colors. Their reputation for being undisciplined is also evident here by the unusual headgear and cumbersome weapons he carries, yet Gérôme shows a man who is proud of his heritage and his character. I like the neutral dark greenish background also, which is a subtle complementary color to the pink "non-uniform". Disciplined or not, they were not fighters you wanted to mess with.

Gerome Bethseba
Bethsabée, ca. 1889

In this very sensual piece Gérôme depicts Bathsheba bathing on the rooftop of King David, through his viewpoint, making us the voyeurs admiring her beauty. According to the story she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in David's army who preferred being in battle than with this wife. David can't resist this kind of temptation and promptly knocks her up, which would bore them a son who would eventually become the wise King Solomon. It is curious how Gérôme leaves the background cityscape in hazy detail, knowing it would detract from the main figures if the architecture was more tightly rendered. Here the color temperatures of warm and cool in the buildings and clouds...this complementary color scheme suggests the indifference and passion of the story itself. The flowers, however, are painted with doting detail to show the natural flora as equal to the grace and beauty of a woman. Gérôme repeats the complementary red-greens of the flowers in the rug beneath her feet. The slave wringing the cloth in the wash basin seems surprised by Bathsheba's uninhibitedness, unaware of her lonely marriage and yearning to be with the King of Israel. Gérôme creates a real, silent moment with raw seductive reverie.

Gérôme - Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard
Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard

A brilliant flow of movement and composition, this work is one of my favourites from Gérôme. Diagonal movement of the birds swooping in to feed from the woman tossing crumbs from her bowl...this painting has such a peaceful and calming effect by watching it, especially by the warm sunlight striking the far right columns and causing shadows on the foreground steps, as well as the warm glow against the building wall. Gérôme has a simple palette that again contrasts figures by using complementary colors in the main figures, and cool for the background ones. His use of two-point perspective again draws us into the scene. Gérôme makes us voyeurs in an amusing daytime scene.

There are dozens of examples I could analyze still and learn from, and although I don't necessarily agree with all the methods of Academic NeoClassicism, such as sight-size drawing, I believe Gérôme really sought to elevate French art beyond mythology and perfection to something more real, to discover and explore the world around us. Orientalism had its critics but Gérôme was able to take us into new worlds and open our minds, even among the everyday people of these lands to search for sincerity in all subjects he painted, not merely pure realism or fuzzy impressionism that followed later. He wanted art to be a stage for the story of life itself.


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