1824-1904 | French
La Danse pyrrhique
Signed "J.L. Gérôme" (lower right)
Oil on canvas
This painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme entitled La Danse pyrrhique is among the most fascinating compositions ever composed by the Academic master’s hand. Gérôme’s iconic scenes of the East captivated a generation, and this work showcases all of the artist’s unparalleled talents. Set in the Ptolemaic period of Ancient Egypt, its depiction of the ritual Pyrrhic dance is vivid and striking. Beautifully painted and rich with detail, it represents the best of Gérôme’s famed Orientalist scenes.
In La Danse pyrrhique, Gérôme gives us a dramatic rendering of this ancient war dance. Greek in origin, it was performed by costumed dancers armed with swords who completed a series of movements set to music pantomiming combat. Homer wrote that Achilles performed this dance in a show of respect and grief at the funeral of his friend, Patroclus. When Julius Caesar introduced it to the Roman Games, its popularity spread across the Roman Empire to include Egypt, where Gérôme’s composition is set.
Gérôme visited Egypt for the first time in 1856, and he returned throughout the late 19th century when this work was created. Gérôme’s first-hand familiarity with this setting is evident in this piece, and his visual narrative is unlike any other. His paintings combine the rationalist style of historical paintings and the theatrical Romantic aesthetic, including some of Gérôme’s own artistic license. This work is set in front of the Temple of Isis at Philae Island, but the artist has slightly altered the hieroglyphics at the entrance, perhaps to better mimic the central dancers. While the backdrop is awe-inspiring, it is the dancers themselves that are unquestionably the focus of the composition. Exactingly rendered, they show Gérôme’s mastery over the human form seen in his intense study of their musculature and movement.
The most prominent French academic painter of the 19th century, Gérôme was also among the foremost inventors of Orientalist themes. After the year he spent in Rome with his teacher Paul Delaroche in 1843, he developed an insatiable appetite for traveling, which inspired his treks to Egypt, Turkey and North Africa. He meticulously researched and recorded the costume and customs of the Near East, as evidenced by the myriad details of the present composition. During his career, Gérôme achieved great popularity and had considerable influence as a defender of academic tradition. While teaching at the highly regarded École des Beaux-Arts, Gérôme exhibited in countless Salons and was actively courted and patronized by collectors. The majority of Gérôme 's works were eventually gifted to major museums and very few reside in private hands.
This spectacular work once belonged to the Najd collection, widely considered the most important assembly of Orientalist artworks in private hands. Select works from this collection have been placed on long-term loan to prestigious museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT, where the present work was once on view. This great work is featured in numerous books on the artist, including the artist’s catalogue raisonné by Gerald M. Ackerman.
This painting is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity and will be included in Dr. Emily M. Weeks’ revision of the artist’s catalogue raisonné by Gerald M. Ackerman.
Canvas: 25 3/4" high x 36 3/8" wide
Frame: 38 1/2" high x 49 1/4" wide
Gail Borden Munsill, c.1890-1910
Ruth Clark Holmes Munsill, by 1941, by descent from the above
Penelope Holmes Munsill Harris, by descent from the above
Laurence van Doren Harris Jr., by descent from the above
Daniel B. Grossman, Inc., New York
Sotheby's Parke Bernet, 25 January 1980, lot 292 (titled La Phyrique)
Phillips, London, 30 October 1981
The Fine Art Society, London, by April 1984 (titled The Sword Dance, stock no. E6 / 21)
The Najd collection, acquired from the above in the 1980s
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, long-term loan
Oeuvres de J.L. Gérôme, vol. XXIII, 13, illustrated (as La Phyrique)
Pheobe Pool, Impressionism, London, 1967, pp. 92 & 274, fig. 65 (titled Sword Dance, illustrated)
P. A. Clayton, The Rediscovery of Ancient Egypt: Artists and Travellers in the Nineteenth Century, London, 1982, p. 178, (titled Sword Dance, illustrated)
G. M. Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paris, 1986, pp. 173, 290-91, no. 487 (titled The Pyrrhic Dance [Sword dance before Egyptian ruins] / La Danse pyrrhique, illustrated)
C. Juler, Najd Collection of Orientalist Paintings, London, 1991, pp. 141 & 152 (illustrated)
G. M. Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme: His Life, His Work, Paris, 1997, p. 175 (titled The Pyrrhic Dance)