1824-1904 | French
Le Chef des Eunuques Blancs
(The Grand White Eunuch)
Signed "J.L. Gérôme" (lower right)
Oil on canvas
An exceptionally composed hammam scene comes alive in this composition by the master of the genre, Jean-Léon Gérôme. The splendid evocation of ladies lounging around the bath is offset by the steely gaze of Gérôme's primary subject, the white eunuch. Brilliantly conceived, the oil on canvas brings together Gérôme’s aptitude for narrative painting with his incomparable mastery of the highly finished Academic style.
Among the most famous of Gérôme's bath scenes is his 1886 The Terrace of the Seraglio, which was sold at a 1998 Christie's auction for $1.3 million. The present composition offers another perspective on this same scene. It includes identical architectural elements — the striped arches, the domed roof, the fountain at the center of the bath — as well as the same models, one posed on the pool's edge while two others splash in the bath itself. Rather than the bathers, however, Gérôme has chosen to focus on an altogether more serious figure in this work.
The figure of the eunuch — the only male allowed into a female bath — stands before the indoor pool, his poignant gaze fixed on the viewer as though in humor or in warning. He is clad in orange and brown robes that are rich in quality, yet still appear to fade into his surroundings. Known as a Kapi Agha, or "grand white eununch," the post had largely lost its power during the reign of Murad III (1574-1595), when a number of Kizlar Agha, or "grand black eunuchs," were brought into the court as either gifts or prisoners of war. The Kizlar Agha quickly gained power and status that was equal to that of the Grand Vizier, delegating the Kapi Agha to role of supervisor over male pages. That Gérôme chose to depict a Kapi Agha in the present work lends it an historical depth beyond its surface narrative of an opulent bath scene.
Before painting this work, Gérôme had visited Turkey as the personal guest of the court painter; while there, he had encountered grand baths in both Constantinople and Bursa. However, it is unlikely that his bath scenes were drawn directly from his visits. Instead, Gérôme is known to have relied on the photographs of the Abdullah Fréres firm in order to compose his grand scenes, in which he inserted his own models who posed for him at his Paris studio. It is generally believed that the architecture of most of Gérôme’s hammam scenes is based on that of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace; Le Chef des Eunuques Blancs is likewise evocative of the Sultan's household, where Gérôme was once a welcome guest.
One of the most prominent French academic painters of the 19th century, Gérôme is today credited with fashioning an entirely new artistic ideology. One of the originators of the Orientalist style, Gérôme was also a stalwart defender of Academic painting, which was waning under the rise of Realism and Impressionism. Inspired by the year he spent in Rome with Paul Delaroche in 1834, he developed an insatiable appetite for traveling, and throughout his career, he traveled widely in Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa. His years exploring the Near East inspired his greatest Orientalist works, his Moorish and Turkish bath scenes.
A sculptor as well as a painter, his female figures have the same classical precision of Ingres but are executed with a more pronounced sensuality and realism. Enjoying great popularity and success during his lifetime, he was actively courted and patronized by private collectors and nobility. Today, the majority of Gérôme's works are held in major museums, with very few remaining in private hands. Once owned by French sculptor and painter Antonin Mercié and later by Yvonne Coty, wife of the famed perfumer François Coty, this masterpiece is an extraordinary find.
Canvas: 24" high x 19 3/4" wide
Frame: 31 3/4" high x 27 1/2" wide
Gérome: A Collection of the Works of J.L. Gérome in One Hundred Photogravures, New York, 1881, by E. Strahan (illustrated)
The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1892, by F. Field Hering, p. 161 (illustrated)
"J.-L. Gerome: peintre de l’Orient," Le Figaro Illustré, Paris, 1901, by F. Masson, p. 10 (illustrated)
The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme with a Catalogue Raisonné, 1986, by G. M. Ackerman, p. 252, no. 319 (illustrated)
Orientalism and Turkey, Istanbul, 1989, by S. Germaner and Z. Inankur, p. 119
Jean-Léon Gérôme: Monographie révisée, Catalogue raisonné mis à jour, 2000, by G. M. Ackerman, p. 308, no. 319 (illustrated)
Possibly, Goupil & Cie., Paris, no. 14903,acquired directly from the artist, November 1880
Possibly, Sloane, 1880
Goupil & Cie., London, no. 16455, 1883
Reverend J.J. Couzens, London, 1883
Ogden Goelet, New York
John Levy Galleries, New York
Hubert K. Dalton, Rumson, New Jersey
Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, October 16, 1941, lot 80
Louis Kaplan, New York, 1941
Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, September 21, 1963, lot 33
Edward Binney III, San Diego, 1963
Christie's, New York, May 23, 1991, lot 44
Private collection, Southwestern USA, 1991
M.S. Rau, New Orleans, 2020