Jean-Léon Gérôme, a pioneer of Orientalist and History painting, and perhaps its most devoted practitioner, created an oeuvre of paintings whose finish and subject matter surpassed that of many of his contemporaries. Read more to learn more about Gérôme’s life and artistic career.
Born in 1824 in Vesoul in the picturesque Bourgogne region of France, Gérôme established himself as one most well-respected Academic painters in not only the 19th century, but in the entire canon of Art History. The significance of Gérôme’s oeuvre is in his ability to create exceedingly detailed and dramatic scenes, full of captivating details and sensuality that pull the viewer into their narrative.
In spite of his father's disapproval, Gérôme moved to Paris at the age of 16 to study painting in the atelier of the prestigious historical painter, Paul Delaroche. When Delaroche left for Italy in 1843, the young french painter followed him with the intention of studying classical architecture and imagery. Gérôme became enamored of the classical world that surrounded him there, and was particularly drawn to the ruins at Pompeii, incorporating design elements of its ancient frescos into his own works.
Unfortunately, Gérôme's Italian education was cut short in 1844, when he was forced to return home due to an illness. Once back in Paris, he continued his formal studies in the studio of Charles Gleyre, a well-respected Neo-Grec painter. While he was hoping to win the prestigious Prix de Rome competition to return to Italy, Gérôme's hopes were ruined when his entry was rejected by the committee. Under Gleyre’s instruction, the developing French artist thus embarked a highly disciplined course of study -including the systematic examination of individual body parts to improve his figurative draftsmanship.
Gérôme’s first work of great acclaim was entitled The Cock Fight, painted in 1846 and shown at the Salon of 1847, where it earned him a third place medal. French art critic and journalist Theophile Gautier recognized the work’s great importance and gave Gérôme public acknowledgement of his mastery. It was just the beginning of the popular acclaim the artist would enjoy during his lifetime. As a result of his success, Gérôme set aside his dream of winning the Prix de Rome, focusing instead on taking the Parisian art world by storm.
In 1853, Gérôme moved to a new studio at the Boîte à Thé where several other writers, actors, artists and musicians congregated. These influencers included writers George Sand (Pseudonym of Amantine Dupin), Theophile Gautier, and Ivan Turgenev, as well as composers Hector Berlioz and Gioachino Rossini. He enjoyed a number of high-profile and lucrative special commissions throughout the 1850s, including decorating the Chapel of St. Jerome in the church of St. Séverin in Paris.
Shortly thereafter, the French artist visited Egypt for the first time in 1856. It heralded the beginning of the Orientalist style that would pervade his oeuvre throughout his career. While his execution remained strictly Academic in style, his subjects could not be further from the traditional tropes of the French Academy.
These themes brought him considerable success; in 1858, he was commissioned to decorate the Parisian home of Prince Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte in the Pompeian style. Gérôme was elected to the Institute de France in 1865, and was also recognized as an officer in the Legion d’Honneur. Eventually, Gérôme returned to the École des Beaux-Arts, but this time as one of three instructors, a position which he held for the remainder of his life. Between 1864 and 1904, it is estimated that Gérôme taught more than 2,000 students, and positions in his atelier were highly sought after.
One of the greatest struggles Gérôme faced in the late 19th century was the waning enthusiasm for the Academic style of painting, specifically with the rise of Realism and Impressionism. While the Academic art style favored ancient classical art and historical subjects, newer movements moved towards capturing fleeting atmospheric effects and painting en plein air. However, Gérôme staunchly defended his practice and the Academic tradition.
While his style never changed throughout his career, Gérôme did experiment in his medium. In the late 1870s, the artist took up sculpture, which he first showed at the Exposition Universelle of 1878. His experimentation in sculpture enhanced his already robust knowledge of human anatomy and form, and his studies in bronze came to reflect the grace and sensuality of his mature style.
Gérôme’s visual narrative are unlike any other: his paintings combine the colossal, rationalist style of historical paintings and the theatrical Romantic aesthetic. This can be directly traced to two of his predecessors: Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and Paul Delaroche.
Through these two influences, Gérôme mastered a technique of painting that eliminated any trace of brushwork and produced a highly detailed illusion of reality. His canvases display remarkable photographic realism due to his meticulous attention to detail. Gérôme's astute rendering of the human form appealed not only to the Academic art tradition, but also wealthy patrons. Often, both critics and connoisseurs alike referenced his work as a snapshot of time, an illusion of reality through artifice and pattern. In turn, Gérôme’s paintings made certain highly historical events much more captivating and accessible to viewers. In fact, even critics of Gérôme’s work cited his flawless technique, the removal of any trace of the painter’s hand, as a way of inviting the viewer into the work.
Gérôme is often cited as a key member of the Neo-Grecs, a group comprised of artists who were taught in the Academic style and had an interest in ancient Greece and Rome. Formally formed in 1847, the Neo-Grecs brought together history and genre painting, creating stunning settings for their painterly narratives.
Beyond the Academic style and the Neo-Grecs, Gérôme's oeuvre is largely divided into two categories: the classical and the exotic. While many of his works depict fascinating stories of mythology, biblical tales, and historical events, he was perhaps most known for his Orientalist paintings.
The concept of Orientalism in 19th-century art history began with the allure of “The Orient.” Up until the turn of the 19th century, Western Europeans had little contact with the East. Yet, endeavors such as Napoléon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaigns in the late 18th century began to introduce Western audiences to Eastern art and culture. In turn, European artists sought to represent the East through exotic settings, rich textures and sensual subjects - all of which appealed to the tastes, fantasies, politics and preconceptions of Western audiences.
While many European artists relied on secondary sources for their inspiration, Gérôme traveled to these regions in order to study their art, architecture and culture. The artist quickly became an avid traveler, and made numerous voyages to the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and North Africa. During his visits, Gérôme documented every detail, texture, and custom he observed by making numerous sketches. He was so detailed-focused that he even documented the individual tiles on the walls of palaces he visited. These sketches would provide the basis for many of his greatest masterpieces.
Gérôme’s Works in the Market
Gérôme is an incredibly important part of the art historical canon and his legacy has been secured in many of the world’s most prominent institutions, including the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery of London, and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, among many others.
Jean-Léon Gérôme paintings have yielded considerably high prices in the past decade. In 2008, one of his more famous nudes brought a sale price of 4.1MM, which soared past its high estimate of 1.1MM.
Why? Art collectors and museum specialists alike recognize the scarcity of the master’s works on the private market, and they acknowledge the importance of acquiring a Gérôme on the rare chance one becomes available. More than that, Gérôme’s detailed, richly colored canvases have stood against the test of time. They embody a style unparalleled by any other artist - his artistry will always be in fashion.