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Jean-Léon Gérôme was a famous 19th century artist who specialised in painting, drawing and sculpture. It was the content that he incorporated into his Academic style which set him apart from all other artists during that period.
This was an artist with ambition and curiosity who travelled repeatedly in order to find new inspiration for his work. Some academic artists such as Bouguereau, Alma-Tadema and Leighton settled upon a genre which they remained faithful to for most of their career, but Gerome would constantly find new avenues of interest which included historical painting, Greek mythology, Orientalism and figurative portraits. Academic art has experienced fluctuating interest and respect from both the art public and also academics over the past century or so, but the uniqueness of this artist's ouevre has meant that his reputation has persisted strongly. Our paintings section features all of the highlights from these different genres of work and you can also see some of his techniques of preparation through our coverage of his study drawings - he was a famously meticulous artist in each and every medium that he made use of.
American collectors quickly became interested in Gerome's work, excited by his concentration on rarer topics such as North African and Middle Eastern culture. At that time, his work served as both artistic and also educational, with many much less aware of other cultural ways than we all are today. This is perhaps similar to the way in which art introduced many to some of the more exotic plants and animals of the world, prior to the rise in popularity of zoos. For a period of time you would find examples of this artist's career under the ownership of all major US collectors, with most of them later bequething them to major institutions across the country. This has enabled the public to easily access them today which in turn has ensured that his reputation continues to remain strong. Academics continue to afford him considerable attention and revised catalogues of his work still re-appear from time to time.
Various Stages of Classicism
The early success achieved by Gerome as a professional artist was achieved through influences from Greek and Roman history. Classicism could be found in paintings such as The Cock Fight and underlined the artist's experience at that point. It was only later that foreign travels to North Africa and the Middle East would open his eyes to new, more niche ideas (from the perspective of western society). Pygmalion and Galatea, The Death of Caesar and Phryne before the Areopagus then continued his successful interjection into this genre, though some of his other paintings on these themes were met with disinterest, as some were starting to choose more modern ideals such as Impressionism instead. Bouguereau famously experienced the same issues in his same career, though never sought new inspirations or styles for his work and stuck rigidly to his impressive female portraits over the full length of his career.
Orientalism and his Travels Abroad
It was Gerome's paintings within the movement of Orientalism that would set his career aside from all others. No other notable Academic artist would take on this type of content and it also helped to draw in collectors from the United States who both respected his technical qualities but also were intrigued by the cultures of these 'exotic' countries. It was paintings such as The Carpet Merchant and Prayer in the Mosque that would bring the images and beauty of Islamic life to the eyes of these western, perhaps for the first time. The architecture and clothing was also of particular interest, and Gerome would go into meticulous detail on each within his work. Some have since found his work to be tailored too much to western tastes, but it cannot be denied that his career was groundbreaking in drawing attention to some of the more colourful cultures to be found outside of the European continent. There was also a concentration on slavery too, as seen in Pool in a Harem, Slave Market in Rome and The Slave Market.
Gerome's Life as a Draughtsman
The artist's early success came through various portrait drawings completed in pencil and chalk. This showed considerable early promise and encouraged his father to back his career in art after some earlier disagreements. Gerome's work in this medium would provide the basis to all other mediums in which he worked, including painting and sculpture. Effective portraiture requires considerable practice, even from the most talented of artists and Jean-Léon recognised this from an early age. His first training in drawing came as a teenager but he later received further guidance several decades later when returning to Paris after several trips abroad.
It was a Neo-Classical painter by the name of Claude Basil Cariage who initially tutored the young artist in this medium, with Charles Gleyre then later working with the artist from the studio of Paul Delacroche. The majority of remaining drawings from Gerome's career are study portraits for larger painting compositions, where he felt it necessary to practice a particular element of a scene that he felt slightly unsure about. This was also preferable to attempting to amend an oil painting once it had already been commenced. Some of the remaining artworks also indicate adjustments in the drawing such as the position of a limb or an overall pose.
Work in Sculpture
Jean-Leon Gerome dedicated himself to sculpture from around the early 1870s, giving him around three decades before his death to produce a total of around 70 attributable pieces. The artist had earlier been awarded the professorial role at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and by this stage his development as a painter was fairly complete, as was his desire to build an internationally-recognised reputation. He now felt free to explore new avenues of creativity and materials without fear of any critical responses. Another interesting aspect to his sculptures was how some were directly related to his earlier paintings, almost bringing a third-dimension to elements of his earlier career highlights. For example, Pollice Verso from 1872 would inspire a bronze statue of a gladiator figure. That piece would be first exhibited in 1878.
Sculpture was under going some fundamental changes during the mid to late 19th century and Gerome looked to join in with the new direction that many were headed in. With relatively little experience in this medium, everything was new and exciting to Gerome and he would embrace all manner of variations in his work, including a wide selection of materials such as marble, ivory, bronze and gemstones. It was in the 1880s and 1890s that he would output sculptures more frequently as he started to feel more comfortable with working in this new discipline. In terms of content, most of his sculptures were single figures, with some of the most famous European conquerors attracting his attention during the late 19th century, taking in the likes of Bonaparte and Frederick the Great.
Life as a Teacher
Having learnt so much as an art student from a number of individuals, including Paul Delacroche, Gerome understood the importance of having the right direction in the early stages of his career. This encouraged him to become a teacher himself and he would go onto to influence a huge number of artists from later generations. Whilst not all would go on to fame and fortune, there was a number of notable names to have benefitted from his tutorage at some point in their careers. Such was his reputation that many international artists would travel from far and wide to Paris in order to take advantage of his knowledge and readiness to pass on his finely tuned skills.
The likes of Odilon Redon, Mary Cassatt, Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin, Hosui Yamamoto, Thomas Eakins and Edwin Lord Weeks would all come under his wing at one point or another, with the latter two being the most closely aligned with his own style. Others would follow new directions, artistically, but still take much from his technical understanding and always respect what they were being taught. It is believed that by the time of his death in 1904, at the age of 79, he had taught thousands of students, helping to ensure that his own legacy continued for years to come.
The Artist's Legacy
Besides the students that continued many elements of his technical achievements, his final oeuvre included over 1,000 drawings, paintings and sculptures. Gerome achieved international fame during his own lifetime and this has ensured that his original artworks can now be found in collections all across the world, including both private and public ownership. American collectors were particularly keen on his work right across the 20th century, finding his work both technically impressive and also full of charming themes. Thankfully, many private collectors have since bequethed their work over to museums and galleries which allow more of us to enjoy these impressive pieces.
Gerome played an interesting role, along with Bouguereau, in disputing the qualities of Impressionism throughout his career. He became known as anti-Monet and this may have damaged his reputation in the eyes of some. He has also received some criticism in recent years for adapting scenes of life abroad to suit European tastes, rather than precisely depicting reality. This maybe a sign of some cultures starting to reject the historial dominance of European powers over themselves, rather than a genuine disliking for the work of artists such as these. This appears to be rather fashionable at the moment, particularly in social media, as a means to promoting one's own significance.