Unfolding the Holy Flagc. 1876 by
Gerome, Jean-Leon 1824-1904
In this painting from the middle years of Gerome's career, a doorkeeper in Tuareg costume guards the entrance to a shrine. He holds a sacred green banner inscribed with (most likely) Koranic texts. The silk flag glows against the decayed grey-brown stone and the brilliant red of the door hanging, which highlights the pure white of the man's tunic. Although this is the only known painting of a Tuareg by the artist, compositions with single figures, in other ethnic costumes, guarding portals are frequent in his work. As in his other Orientalist paintings, Gerome gives the impression of a scene actually observed. In fact, it is quite unlikely that he would have seen a Tuareg in the situation presented here, for the Tuaregs are nomads, not city-dwellers. Yet in fairness, they were little known in Europe at the time this work was painted. It is possible that the artist saw Tuareg people or costumes on his trip to Algeria in 1873 (although he visited only Algiers) and that he consulted publications to costume details.
In undertaking the representation of a Tuareg, then, Gerome would have had meager resources. Yet he correctly shows the man wearing a long veil, the symbol of adult male identity in this matrilineal society where women went unveiled. The tunic is also a good approximation of Tuareg costume, but the artist has omitted the usual baggy pants and sandals. Gerome suggests the man's latent violence by arming him with a sword, a quiver of arrows, and a bow barely visible above the right shoulder. The bow is not a typical Tuareg weapon, and Gerome has omitted the most common, the arm dagger. The inconsistencies of figure and setting and the inaccuracies of costume and weapons are another demonstration that even though Gerome was perceived in his time as a scientific painter, his Orient was, to a large extent, a studio invention. No one could fault him for the technical proficiency of this painting, however. So delicate is his glazing technique that a careful observer will be able to perceive the nose and lips of the warrior beneath his black veil. Extremely subtle color modulations cause this garment to appear black and yet reveal a complex pattern of folds.
Size (inches): 21 3/4 x 19 3/4
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Location: McKee Room