I Luvz Me Some Jean-Leon Gerome [re-edit]

this is a combo of 2 posts from my previously imploded blog;thanx to Flint Dille & Robin Enos for kickstarting this re-post

Jean-Leon Gerome (1824 -1904) was a phenomenally talented French painter who specialized in classical & Middle Eastern subjects.  He’s one of the “oh, that guy!” circle:  Artists whose work you’re already immensely familiar with, but who got bulldozed over by the modern art explosion of the late 19th/early 20th century.  Now, thankfully, he and others like him are being re-discovered.

Gerome had an eye for detail, a sly wit, and a vivid imagination.  His technique was (usually) impeccable (see below for the contrarian example).  He was also smart & married well:  His father-in-law ran an art dealership that sold rotogravures of Gerome’s works, everything from cheap postcards to expensive prints.

A lotta contemporary critics took a dislike to Gerome’s financial success, the same way critics today deride artists who make their money off prints, posters, & T-shirts.[1] They accused Gerome of cranking out art on just about every subject with an eye to turning into a mass produced commodity.[2]

And Gerome could crank it out:  The exact number of paintings, sketches, & oil studies he did will never be known, but it numbered in the hundreds.  And Gerome’s studies are often of equal quality to other artist’s finished works.

In fact, it appears he thought painting was too easy! So in his latter life he took up sculpting -- and became a master in that medium as well!

I luvz me some Jean-Leon Gerome, but truth be told, there are paintings of his that cause me a bit of irritation.

As I said, he was fast, he was prolific.  He normally took great pains in the details of his work though often the final product was just an inventive mish-mosh of the purported subject matter; his Middle East paintings are all scrupulously correct in details of costume, location, & props but the final composition was…uh…quite imaginative.[3] (That being said, he depicted his Arab and African characters with accuracy, grace, & dignity, always as distinct individuals, not caricatures.)

The same may be true for his paintings of classic antiquity.  For the theater & movies, Gerome was the go-to guy when one had to depict ancient Greek and Roman eras.[4] He did an enormous amount of research, but again, how accurately did he put the pieces together?

No matter:  Gerome pretty much defined how we view the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

Like I said, I luvz me some Gerome, but there are three traits of his that I find irritating.

#1 (and this one is only partially irritating since it actually works about half the time) -- he often doesn’t show the action, but rather the moment just before or immediately after.  Sometimes he pulls this off:  “Golgotha” is all the more powerful for the crucifixion taking place just off panel.  Other times it seems too coy for its own good (and, yes, Gerome could depict action very well).

#2 -- he often “cut & pasted” characters & elements in his paintings in a way that pretty much tips off the fact.  And he’ll leave clumsy clues in, like a conveniently placed brick or footstool so that he could mimic the model’s pose perfectly rather than modify it to fit the scene.

#3 -- for a guy with a sharp eye for detail, when he goes wrong he goes really wrong.  Here’s one of his more famous paintings, “Prayer In The Mosque”.  He used photographic reference to perfectly recreate the interior of the mosque, then blew it with the prayer rug in the foreground.

(This drove me nuts when I saw it at the Getty Museum exhibit on Gerome’s work.  The guards were eyeing me suspiciously as I got close to verify how far off his vanishing points were.)

Despite that, I luvz me some Jean-Leon Gerome.  Here’s to a great artist, a man born 141 years too early for PhotoShop!

Addendum Swiping Across The Centuries:  Jean To Jack

When I stumbled across this cover illo of Springheeled Jack at John Adcock’s Yesterday’s Papers blog --

-- I was struck by the similarity to Gerome’s “Duel After A Masked Ball” (1857).

I think the obvious explanation is that somebody in the production process -- artist, writer, editor, or publisher -- was familiar with Gerome’s work and swiped it was inspired by it to create this cover.

Many American pulps and comic books typically bought / commissioned striking covers, then showed ‘em to writers who had to come up with stories to fit them.

Was that the Springheeled Jack process?  I dunno, but it sounds logical.




[1]  ka-CHING!

[2] D’uh

[3]  i.e., totally made up BS

[4]  Oddly enough, Richard Lester’s 1966 film, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, based on the Broadway hit by Larry Gelbart & Stephen Sondheim, may be the most accurate depiction of life in Roman times, even if the story itself is a broad farce.

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