A Roman Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme

A Roman Slave Market by Jean Léon Gérome (c.1884)

For My Daily Art Display today I am moving away from landscape artists and their works and delving into the world of Academicism and Academic art.  The term “Academic Art” is associated particularly with the French Academy and its influence on the Paris Salons in the 19th century. Though Academic art can be meant to extend to all art influenced by the European Academies, it’s often meant to refer to artists influenced by the standards of the French Académie des Beaux Arts.   Academic Art was in fashion in Europe from the 17th to the 19th century. It practiced under the movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism and more usually used to refer to art that followed these two movements, in the attempt to synthesize both of their styles.   Artists such as today’s featured artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme epitomize this style. Academic Art is often referred to as art pompier, or eclecticism.

Jean-Léon Gérôme was born in 1824 in Vésoul in the Haute Saône region of France.   His father was a goldsmith and did everything in his power to discourage his son from studying to become a painter but to no avail.  At the age of sixteen, Jean-Léon went to Paris and studied at the studio of the painter, Paul Delaroche where he inherited his highly finished academic style Delaroche closed his studio in 1843 and took Gérôme with him to Italy.  There they visited Rome, Florence and the Vatican but for Gérôme the place which impressed him the most was Pompeii and Herculaneum.  It was here that new excavations were taking place and frescoes and sculptures were being uncovered.  Inspired by these, Gérôme was later to establish, in 1848, the Néo-Grec (New Greek) group of artists.  Ill health forced him to return to Paris in 1844.  He attended the Académie des Beaux Arts and entered some of his paintings into the Prix de Rome but with only mixed fortune.  However his works of art were being noticed by the art critics and in 1847 his painting The Cock Fight, an academic exercise depicting a nude young man and a lightly draped girl with two fighting cocks and in the background the Bay of Naples, won him a medal at the Paris Salon.

Jean-Léon Gérôme travelled extensively and recorded all that he saw on his journeys especially those to Turkey and Egypt.   These visual notes he recorded, whether they were simple drawings or paintings gave him an abundance of material to use when he returned home to his studio in Paris and had the time and space to convert his material into large scale works.  As an artist he was highly successful and never lacked profitable commissions.  In 1860 he married the Marie Goupil, the daughter of Adolphe Goupil a wealthy and well-established art dealer and from that day forth Gérôme’s international popularity and recognition grew.

My Daily Art Display for today is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s oil on canvas painting entitled A Roman Slave Market which he completed around 1884.  In all Gérôme painted six slave market scenes set in either Rome or 19th century, Istanbul.  Today’s work of art was originally entitled Sale of Circassian Slave.  This beautiful painting depicts a naked female slave standing before the male bidders at an auction.  Gérôme found a novel slant on the common 19th century theme of the slave market by viewing the action from behind the podium.   The slave is seen from behind, as if through the eyes of the next slave who is waiting to be moved forward and be auctioned off.  What was controversial about this painting was the way in which he portrayed the leering crowd which undermined the notion that bodily perfection could be viewed with a pure and disinterested gaze

Jean-Léon Gérôme died in his atelier on 10 January 1904. He was found in front of a portrait of Rembrandt and close to his own painting “The Truth”.   At his own request, he was given a simple burial service without flowers.   But the requiem mass given in his memory was attended by a former president of the Republic, most prominent politicians, and many painters and writers. He was buried in the cemetery at Montmartre in front of the statue Sorrow that he had cast for his son Jean who had died before him in 1891.

Maybe the last words on Jean-Léon Gérôme should come from the Lorenz Eitner, the Stanford University Art History professor who wrote about Gérôme and his works of art in his book An Outline of 19th Century European Painting saying:

“… In the variety and sensationalism of his subjects Gérôme surpassed all his rivals at the Salon – murder in the Roman Senate and carnage in the gladiatorial arena, luscious nudity at the slave auction or the harem bath; Bonaparte contemplating the Sphinx – all served equally well for his carefully plotted picture-plays, graced with sex, spiced with gore and polished into waxwork life-likeness by a technique that his admirers took for realism….”