Pollice Verso Jean-Leon Gerome Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The 19th-century French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme created the influential work known as Pollice Verso. It popularised the well-known thumbs-down gesture associated with Roman gladiator events.

In 1872, Gérôme completed work on what was one of his most influential paintings, Pollice Verso. The picture shows a scene involving gladiators in the arena. It typifies the Roman thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture that is associated with gladiatorial contests. It is this gesture that gives the picture its title, Pollice Verso. This comes from the Latin phrase, "with a turned thumb".

Looking at the picture, the victorious gladiator stands over his opponent on the arena floor. He’s looking up into the stands for direction. There are also the dead bodies of other challengers about him. On the right of the picture, in the stands, are the vestal virgins. Around the stadium, there are more spectators. The Roman emperor is visible in the centre of the painting. The spectators and the Vestals are indicating to the gladiator the fate of his opponent with the thumbs-down gesture.

With all the shouting and pointing taking place, Gérôme captures a sense of the energy in the stadium. It’s also rich in the detail and drama of the event. Amongst everything happening, the emperor appears to move at a different pace to others. The artist makes it possible for the viewer to look around the scene at their own pace. In doing so, he captures a sense of the vestal virgins, the gladiator and the emperor all moving at different speeds.

About the painting

The painting is an oil on canvas work that measures 38in × 59in. The first owner of the artwork was the entrepreneur, Alexander Turney Stewart, who purchased it from the artist. He exhibited it in his home town, New York City. Today it's on display in the Phoenix Art Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.

Cinema Influence

In his portrayal of Rome's ancient world, Gérôme's painting, Pollice Verso’influenced filmmakers as far back as the silent movie. It also influenced the 21st-century film, Gladiator. For the director Ridley Scott, the painting convinced him to get involved with the film. Gérôme's influence didn’t just apply to the costumes and sets. Like the cinema, his style enabled him to show how space and time could play a part in the scene displayed.