The Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme

The Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1866)

Today I am returning to the nineteenth century French academicism painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme, looking at his early life and featuring one of his works.  I had previously featured this artist in My Daily Art Display of February 10th 2011 when I talked about his painting entitled A Roman Slave Market.

Jean-Léon Gérôme was born in 1824, in Vesoul; a small town close to the city of Besançon and near to the French-Swiss border.  He was the eldest son of Pierre Gérôme, who was a goldsmith by trade, and his wife Claude Françoise Mélanie Vuillemot, a daughter of a merchant. He initially attended school locally in Vesoul where he was looked upon as a star pupil and attained a good deal of academic success culminating in being awarded first prize in chemistry, and an honourable mention in physics.  From the age of nine he took drawing lessons under the tutelage of Claude-Basile Cariage and when he was fourteen years of age he received formal art tuition and was viewed as a great up-and-coming talent and he received a prize from the school for one of his oil paintings.    At the age of sixteen, with his school days behind him, he set out for Paris with a letter of introduction to the French painter Paul Delaroche who at this time was at the height of his fame.   Delaroche’s artistic style was a blend of the academic Neo-classical school and the dramatic subject matter favoured by the Romantics.  This combination was to become known as the historical genre painting style. Gérôme was to be greatly influenced by the paintings and the tuition he received from Delaroche.

In 1845, after three years of studying under Delaroche and having just returned to Paris after a visit to his home in Vesoul, Gérôme discovered that Delaroche had closed his studio.   Delaroche had just suffered the loss of his wife, Louise, whom he deeply loved and whom he had depicted in many of his paintings.   Gérôme discovered him to be in the depths of depression following the death of his wife and was about to close his atelier and journey to Italy. Gérôme asked if he could accompany him.  Delaroche agreed and the two of them along with a couple of other of Delaroche’s students, one of which was the English painter Eyre Crowe, set off on their painting trip.

Gérôme stayed in Italy and visited Naples where he viewed the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum which were to become the foundation for his gladiatorial depictions.  His sojourn in Italy was cut short in 1844 when he contracted typhoid fever and he had to return home to Versoul where his mother nursed him back to health.  Later that year, fully recovered, he returned to Paris and entered the atelier of the Swiss painter and teacher Charles Gleyre.   Gleyre was to guide many young aspiring artists who would become famous household names, such as Monet, Renoir, Bazille and Whistler.  From the studio of Gleyre, Gérôme went on to attend the École des Beaux-Arts.

Meanwhile, Delaroche, who had remained in Rome, returned to Paris to work on an important commission.  Delaroche offered Gérôme a position as his assistant on the commission and so Gérôme left Gleyre’s studio to work with his former master.  He remained as Delaroche’s assistant for just on a year. Whilst working alongside Delaroche, he was encouraged to prepare paintings for the Salon exhibitions and within a short time, his talent as an artist was recognised and he was commissioned to paint a reproduction for the Queen. This was to be the start of many official and lucrative commissions. In 1846 Jean-Léon Gérôme began to work on one of his most famous paintings – Young Greeks Attending a Cock Fight.  Gérôme had just suffered the setback at the École des Beaux Arts of not achieving his main aim that of winning Prix de Rome prize, which would have given him a scholarship to travel to and study in Rome.  He was probably questioning his own ability and was somewhat hesitant to submit his painting to the Salon jurists, but on Delaroche’s insistence, he did and it was accepted into the 1847 Salon and hailed a great success.  One of those to take a liking to his work was the art critic and poet, Théophile Gautier, who would later support Gérôme throughout most of his career.  Gautier’s commendation of The Cock Fight made Gérôme famous and his artistic career was well and truly launched.

Gérôme travelled extensively visiting Turkey in 1855 to make studies for a large official commission, and two years later journeyed to Egypt in preparation for the Salon of 1857 in which his first Egyptian genre paintings were shown.   In the 1860’s he returned to Egypt and also visited Judea, Syria and the Holy Places.   Gérôme was fascinated with the Near East and many of his subsequent works highlighted the Near East culture and traditions and it was to mark the start of his career as an Orientalist or a peintre ethnographique.

The painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme which I am featuring today was completed by him in 1866 and is entitled The Slave Market.  It is without doubt one of Gérôme’s most provocative works.  The scene is set in a market place in a Near East country, more than likely, Egypt.  The idea for this painting and others featuring the slave market probably came to Gérôme during his Near East travels, when slavery was still practiced.  However the open air slave market as shown in this painting did not exist in the mid-nineteenth century and so this should be viewed as an idealised depiction.  The artist has put a great deal of effort into details of the costumes worn by the traders as well as the way in which he has carefully depicted, in detail, the architecture of the surrounding buildings.  In the centre of the painting we see a nude woman who is being offered up as a slave and is surrounded by a group of prospective buyers.  One of these men, dressed in a gold and green covered cloak, examines the “goods” on offer.  His left hand holds the back of the woman’s head whilst the fingers of his right hand are forced into her mouth so he could better examine her teeth.  Behind the woman stands the seller and from the smile on his face he seems assured that he is about to be paid handsomely for the woman.  There can be no doubt that prospective buyers of this painting were not totally absorbed by the way the artist depicted the clothes worn by the prospective buyers or with the architecture of the building in the background.  They were sold on the erotic nature of the painting.  Viewers were able to be vociferous in their condemnation of the slave trade whilst enjoying the sight of the female body.

The painting was acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark in 1930 and is part of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts collection but is currently (until September 23rd) on view at the Royal Academy, London.

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….”