The Revelatory Gérôme Exhibition at the Getty

by Gerald Ackerman

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Cock Fight, 1846

As the writer of a biography with a catalogue raisonné of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) that has remained in print (albeit in French) since 1986, I might be said to have a vested interest in the artist and perhaps an exaggerated idea of his worth, and, consequently, I should excuse myself from reviewing an exhibition of his work. However, I learned so much about Gérôme from the Getty exhibition that I hadn’t known or sensed before that I feel permitted, indeed called upon, to write about my reevaluation of the artist. This article is a report—in the guise of a review—of what I learned.
The exhibition included some sixty paintings, perhaps a dozen sculptures and a few documentary photographs. They were hung widely spaced in good light, so it was conducive to both close-up and distant views. It took at least three diligent hours to visit. It took several subsequent visits to learn how to look at Gérôme, and each visit opened my perceptions and comprehension until the final visits were a continuous high.
In the years I worked on Gérôme, I had become somewhat detail-oriented. This was the result of my practice of connoisseurship during the making of a catalogue raisonné. I assembled candidates over twenty-five years; sometimes I accepted paintings with ease—those of high quality and good documentation. But I often had great difficulty trying to decide which of several versions of one subject was the first, and which were preparatory oil-studies, replicas by Gérôme’s hand or copies by another person. I confronted many puzzling works that had been left unfinished and were fixed up to look saleable by clumsier hands. I depended a lot on the quality and dexterity of details. I looked at feet, hands, necks, ankles, ears and foreshortened lips and eyes. Did the figures stand firmly on their feet? Did the visible muscles participate in the action? Were there palpable arms under the sleeves, good thighs and knee-bones under the pants or leggings? Did the arms show their support of lifted hands? Did Gérôme’s love of male facial bone-structure come through strongly? I had to remind myself that he was a master, and not to accept passages that he wouldn’t have passed.
To compound this concern with details, my study of the artist in the early decades was dominated by black-and-white reproductions—photographs and photogravures. They formed the basis of research before good color transparencies and digital images were easy to get. So I was somewhat color-blind in looking at his paintings. I saw many actual paintings during this time, but not in such number at one time as to make me see differently, until this exhibition. Some paintings that hitherto seemed dull in black-and-white photographs were revealed as splendid works, such as the painting of a row of female slaves standing before a shop, displayed like inanimate ware in For Sale (1871, Cleveland). In reality, it is a fine picture with a very adventuresome color and light composition. This unlikely scene must be respected for its abolitionist message.
Visitors at the exhibition also tended to like the details. They immediately went up to the canvases, and oohed and aahed over the details, which are usually wonderful and often humorous. I didn’t see many who stepped back (to a traditionally suggested two breadths of the canvas) to see the painting as the artist would while checking his progress. I, however, dutifully did what I had been taught to do, and the results were stupendous. The details always snapped back into the atmosphere of the painting, the rhythms of the figures became pronounced, and a thorough color and light-scheme united the whole picture from the middle into the four corners. When I entered the galleries for the second time, I saw at once that my careful scrutiny of the previous visit had worked into my mind and eyes. I had learned to see Gérôme’s ensemble, and could see it in all the surrounding paintings on the wall. It was, as I say in the title, revelatory. At first, I had been somewhat miffed that the works had been hung thematically and not chronologically. I had a hunch that Gérôme got off to a rough start as a painter, and despite the arrangement, I could, by running around, see that this was true.
As is well known, Gérôme became famous for The Cock Fight in the Salon of 1847 (Paris, Musée d’Orsay), a painting with some imperfections. Large, it measures some five feet across with two large luminous figures, painted with a light, bright palette. Although hung high on the wall, it stood out from the more somber canvases below it, and was immediately taken up by the critics. The young boy tending one cock, with a hand that ruffles its feathers, is naked. He is seen in full profile, and the management of his limbs and of the spaces and shadows formed among them is splendid. As for the girl watching the fight, practically naked, her contours, although elegant, are inaccurate. The background, although well-painted, seems more like a wraparound frame than an integral part of the composition. But the two roosters, especially the airborne one who flies at its adversary, are marvels. The painting still charms and beguiles both from a distance and up close. The application of paint is splendid, the surface intact, and the colors still radiant after 170 years. What more can one ask from a young painter who had just turned 24?
Jean-Leon Gerome, Pollice Verso-Thumbs Down, 1872Ten years later, Gérôme has gotten everything together for his first masterpiece, The Duel after the Ball, exhibited in the Salon of 1857. The many preparatory sketches show his struggle to get exactly right the relationship in space of the two groups: the main costumed friends supporting the dying Pierrot, and the departing Indian with his second. The tension between the two groups must be exact in order to relate the story and to show, at the same time, the Indian’s loss of interest in a dead individual who just minutes before he had hated enough to kill. Gérôme set up his color scheme with large decorative patches of local colors in the red, white and black costumes in the main group. These colors creep and reflect into the ambient air and show up as spots of red and black in the snow, and in the still dark morning sky, making the costumes of the death group radiant and dominating.
Gérôme’s skills are now so well-developed that he produces a series of masterpieces and, as a painter/friend pointed out to me, at least two perfect paintings in the show that can withstand the most careful scrutiny without revealing a flaw or a neglected area: The Grey Cardinal (1873, Boston) and the Pollice Verso—Thumbs Down (1872, Phoenix). Although Gérôme did not tackle active movement very often, he always understood the contrapposto of his figures and could show incipient action and character in their postures. This is true in both these paintings. In the Grey Cardinal, the courtiers bowing on the stairs are both obsequious and intimidated; and in Pollice Verso, the haughty victor has just swung his sword around himself, pivoting with one foot on top of the body of the vanquished, dominating the whole circus. He is the recipient of reflected sunlight that pokes through the overhead canvases and from various parts of the arena so assuredly that one simply accepts it, although he is standing in the shade.
The next visit took another three hours. The moment I entered the first gallery, I noticed how singular and solid each painting was: well-organized in drawing, clear in subject, and above all effective in composition, which was held together by color and the dark and light values so strongly that each painting was individual, solid and immutable. All the elements of each painting were controlled in a way that seemed natural, with intelligence rather than contrivance. My late mentor, the painter and author Pierce Rice, used to say to me, “You art historians just don’t know how difficult it is to make a picture.” He meant how hard it was to develop an idea and to make it coherent and pleasing in all its parts, fit together, accurately without sloughing off here and there, without cheating in the peripheral details or the values of color and light in the corners. And I had learned to see each painting as a Picture—an idea perfected, held together by the color composition as well as the drawing of the active figures. I saw that Gérôme was a master of making a picture, not just of telling piquant anecdotes.


In looking at one of Gérôme’s academic paintings, we should rehearse in our heads the traditional four parts of painting, and try to see them clearly in the work: 1) Drawing, which has a number of parts, all rule-ridden, like perspective, proportion, anatomy, etc.; 2) Composition—that grab bag of invention, narrative or history, placement, and even our modern composition; 3) Coloring¸ and since color is revealed by light, the two are considered together; and 4) Expression, which means the expression of the subject. Self-expression is a late-nineteenth-century concern. These four parts should be reviewed separately in looking at an academic painting, just to make sure we are not neglecting one or giving too much attention to another. This will take practice in a gallery or museum; the company of an artist would help.
The four parts of painting are all intellectual work; technical skill is not included in the parts, because it is not intellectual but manual labor, learned in an atelier and not in the Academy. But skill is assumed, and taken for granted. Gérôme’s technique is masterful, and completely at the service of his ideas.
It is good to think of the time-consuming preparation behind these solidly finished yet airy canvases: the details hold up, they fit in with the surroundings; nothing stands out to make you wonder unless you get up close. The canvases are solid, the surroundings and the figures harmonious, the values complete and faultless. The unifying color and light are so well worked out that they seem effortless, natural and, even at their most profound, never egoistically predominant, never ostentatious. Often the qualities are sensed but not noticed until a careful, close-up viewing. Once he had done all the intellectual preparation and transferred his cartoon onto the canvas, Gérôme could sit down to work knowing exactly what he was going to do. He was known to talk to visitors, to sing and whistle as he painted. This careful preparation might explain his enormous production: four or five more exhibitions of his work might be made without including any of the paintings in this one.
Even works of modest size or with a single figure are carefully painted, with intensity and focus throughout. The figures, even when standing or sitting alone, have a strong psychological presence. So does a soldier tending two hounds, or a small panel of three pifferari—Italian street musicians—serenading a picture of the Madonna in a cold street. In neither is any detail neglected; the backgrounds are fully supportive of the mood, and the space within the three musicians is opened up by a careful use of faint drawing and color values.
Gérôme’s lighting and coloring are always original and subtle. In the famous Belly Dancer (1863, Dayton), set inside a café, the brightest passage is sunlight on the street seen through an open door at the far left. The other side of the room is dark, but softer reflected light coming through the doorway allows the dancer to be seen in a subdued, general light, without shadows. Her costume glows against the dark space behind her. By contrast, in Oedipus (1886, San Simeon), an outdoor scene in brilliant sunlight, General Bonaparte sits on his steed in silent conversation with the Sphinx, located in the upper center in direct sunlight with light blue shadows on one side of her face. She rises into a slightly darker blue sky and is surrounded with the lighter blue shadows of the rocks scattered over the bright sands of the desert. The sureness with which Gérôme draws and colors Bonaparte and his horse, to balance with the Sphinx and to simultaneously show his silent communication with her, is remarkable.
Some of the pictures are learned and require explanations, while others, like the Oedipus and The Execution of Marshall Ney, 7 December 1815, 9:15 a.m. (Salon of 1868, Sheffield), require none. In the latter, Ney, dead, lies with his face in the mud. A firing squad marches away. The poignancy of this abandonment is moving without our knowing who Ney was or why he was executed. 


The Artists Model, 1895

A room filled with colored statuary and paintings of nude women in various poses is the most astonishing in the exhibition. Most of the paintings declare Gérôme’s intentions: he wanted to continue his trajectory of increasing realism by abolishing all idealism and by coloring his statuary. His disdain of idealism started in his youth with the rejection of the didactic moralizing and pompous themes of traditional academic painting, as in The Cockfight. The paintings in the room declare Gérôme’s theme, “Painting breathes life into sculpture,” for almost all the sculpture is painted. One shows the mythic representative of this theme, the sculptor Pygmalion working in his studio on a statue of Galatea; her white marble body flushes with color as she comes to life and bends over to kiss him. Another, The Artist’s Model (1895, Dahesh Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut) shows Gérôme at work on the plaster for his statue of Tanagra; the model sits next to the almost-finished plaster, to show Gérôme’s ability to mimic nature accurately. Tanagra is the Tyché or spirit of the ancient Greek city where French excavators in the 1870s uncovered hoards of painted statuettes of shoppers, dancers and children at play and so on—that is, genre subjects. These figurines were an antique vindication of his practice. For his self-portrait, Gérôme had a friend sketch his pose; he knew a good drawing would have more information for a painter than a photograph would.
Truth Climbing Out of Her Well (1885, Moulins) is a further step in realism. With two hands on the rim of the well to support her efforts, Truth throws one leg over the edge, distorting her hip and showing an unseemly view of her leg. She is actually ugly, but Gérôme would argue that anything in nature’s work could be ugly; he prizes the articulation of her movement. And a small statue of a Seated Nude (1892, Detroit) on her haunches, her legs and arms crossing before her, is in a pose that looks too uncomfortable for the most experienced model to hold for more than a few minutes. The spaces between her limbs are accurate, yet awkward; from the front, one sees her crotch. That this old man in his seventies would devote his last energy to pushing realism into questionable areas, “as far as realism can go,” is an astounding demonstration of his independence, his dogged intention to be logical in his own development, and to his integrity, for once he starts, he doesn’t lessen his efforts or permit any prettiness. Perhaps Seated Nude can only be understood by someone who has taken a strict drawing course with difficult poses and an exacting master. Gérôme has always been a favorite of trained representational artists, and prized as an example in academic drawing classes. In fact, Gérôme should be an inspiration for young contemporary realists who often do not know what to do with their carefully painted figures. 


Everything Gérôme painted was his best effort at the time. As a craftsman, his integrity was high. He never cheated in finishing a picture—that is, he never let incorrect passages of drawing or values survive. He tied every painting up in a color and light composition that was always unassailable. And his invention of new subjects was inexhaustible. He painted allegories, neo-classical subjects, neo-grec scenes, contemporary French and oriental subjects, ancient, Renaissance and Baroque histories, mythology, biblical history and so forth all through his life, adapting his style to the subject. He cannot be classified, except as an academic realist who used academic techniques to produce realistic subjects. He abandoned the high, didactic moralizing of the Academic tradition for incidents portraying character. In A Collaboration (1832), the classic playwright Corneille and the more down-to-earth playwright Moliere sit at a table across from each other as they try to write a script together. Corneille is proud as he reads his passage. Moliere twitches with impatience as he listens. Gérôme was on Moliere’s side.
The Getty exhibition belies all the rhetorical calumnies and blind prejudices of the late nineteenth century that echo into our day. He comes out well in this exhibition, so well that Gérôme must be recognized as the last great master of the Western tradition of narrative painting that started with Giotto and lasted until World War I. The curators Mary Morton and Scott Allan are to be thanked for their careful selection, and congratulated for their courage. A good catalogue is available for $80, large quarto, 370 pp. The exhibition was on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles (June 15–September 12, 2010).On the web at It travels to the Musée d‘Orsay, Paris (October 19, 2010–January 23, 2011) and to the Thyssen-Bornemiza Museum, Madrid (March 1–May 23, 2011).


American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2010, Volume 27, Number 4