Jean-Leon Gérôme, internationally famous in his time, was one of the most decorated and wealthy of artists. He rose rapidly to success, if not universal admiration, thanks to talent, clever strategies, and good fortune.
He was born into a middle-class family in the French town of Vesoul near the Swiss border, where his father was a well-to-do jeweler and where he received an education better than that of the average artist. When Gérôme announced to his family his chosen vocation, his father reminded him of the maxim “destitute as a painter,” instilling in the son a lifelong fear of poverty.
Nevertheless, at the age of sixteen Gérôme went to Paris to study art with the renowned history painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). Gérôme progressed quickly and became a close friend of the master. The art student also attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a prerequisite to public and critical acceptance that he suffered with distaste. He never won the coveted Prix de Rome, since he was judged deficient in representing the nude. To remedy this defect, Gérôme set to work on two life-size nudes for his Hellenic fantasy The Cock Fight (Musee d’Orsay, Paris). Encouraged by Delaroche, the twenty-three-year-old painter submitted it to the 1847 Salon, where he won a third-class medal and the extravagant praise of one of the most respected and influential art critics of the day, Theophile Gautier. Since Gérôme’s sensuous and precious Hellenism deflated the seriousness of academic classicism, Gautier dubbed it “Neo-Grec,” a mode subsequently taken up by several of Gérôme’s friends.
Although he began to receive government commission soon after his 1847 triumph, it was the parentage of the Second Empire that was crucial to the early phase of Gérôme’s career. During the 1850s, he continued to produce Neo-Grec works increasingly based on erudite archaeological research, and participated in the artistic program for Prince Napoleon’s Neo-Grec Pompeiian house. Gérôme was patronized by the emperor and empress and was socially connected to court circles, for his works did not raise embarrassing questions about social conditions, as did those of Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and Jean François Millet (1814-75); in addition, they maintained old standards of execution and beauty that made them acceptable to the ruling elite. As a result, Gérôme received several major commissions, awards, and honors. During the reign of Napoleon III, he received the Legion of Honor and a professorship at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a position he held for forty years.
By around 1860, Gérôme’s work was selling for prices higher than the government could afford; it was shown internationally by prominent art dealers Ernest Gambart and Adolphe Goupil. The painter’s relations with Goupil were cemented by his marriage to the dealer’s daughter, Marie, in 1863, when, at the age of thirty-nine, he gave up his bohemian bachelor life for a bourgeois existence, complete with a four-story townhouse in Paris. By this time he had added two new modes to his Neo-Grec style, ethnographic subjects and re-creations of events in classical antiquity.
Gérôme began exhibiting ethnographic works in the mid-1850s, achieving critical success at the Universal Exposition of 1855, where he showed his Recreation in the Russian Camp (Musee d’Orsay, Paris) and The Age of Augustus (private collection), which critics praised for their accurate portrayal of various ethnic types. Stimulated by this success and by a brief visit to Turkey in 1853, he embarked on the first of many trips to Egypt in 1856. At the 1857 Salon he began to show the Near Eastern subjects that would eventually constitute the bulk of his artistic output. Obsessed with faithfully depicting the exotic locale, Gérôme traveled there eleven times between 1856 and 1883. To ensure accuracy of details, he made sketches on the spot (once while entirely naked in a Turkish bath house), took photographs, and collected huge quantities of costumes and artifacts. Since he most often visited Egypt, especially Cairo, and Constantinople in Turkey, these are his most frequent subjects. The four Haggin Orientalist paintings are typical in this respect, since all have Cairene settings. Gérôme’s many Near Eastern paintings, with their rich detail, careful finish, and structured compositions made him one of the leading Orientalists of his day.
These works and Gérôme’s archaeological reconstructions of classical antiquity reveal the artist’s gradual shift from idealism to objectivity during the 1850s. This direction is also evident in his dramatizations of modern history that were fully developed as a fourth category of work by the mid-1860s. There well-researched depictions of historical events, mainly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, belong to a type of painting popularized by Gérôme’s old master Delaroche, and by his friend Ernest Meissonier (1815-91).
The subjects of Gérôme’s paintings fall within popular genres of mid nineteenth-century painting. His artistic philosophy, too, seems to have been formed by the diverse tendencies of that time. Late in life, he summarized his eclectic ideals: “The artist should be a poet in conception, a determined, honest and sincere workman in execution…But there can be no serious and durable work if it is not based upon reason and mathematical accuracy-if, in a word, art is not allied to science.” The last criterion, accuracy, is the basis of Gérôme’s objectivity. He believed that the artist must observe nature scrupulously; he should not filter it through some artistic formula. While he shared this attitude with Courbet and Manet (1832-83), Gérôme rejected the title of Realist, for to him this implied an unselective choice of subject. And unlike them he did not, of course, consider modern life the only appropriate theme for painting.
Personal observation was one way the nineteenth-century artist sought to achieve originality. Another was subject, and Gérôme invented several. He did not, however, try to innovate in matters of technique. He was after the same clearly drawn, sculptural figures, defined details, and ordered composition that had long been the ideals of the French Academy. He applied his paint in thin layers and blended his brushstrokes to a high degree of finish. Perhaps this attention to craft, along with his “safe” originality, was what made him one of the artists most sought after by wealthy American businessmen, who avidly acquired his paintings for their collections.