Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gérôme Week Part I -- Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard

Welcome to this, the 75th post on The Jade Sphinx.
Readers interested in art – both as connoisseurs and artists themselves – could hardly do better than spending a week in the company of Jean-Léon Gérôme ( 1824–1904).  One of the most celebrated artists and teachers of his era, Gérôme still has much to teach us.  With that in mind, we will spend the next five days looking at some of what I think are Gérôme’s finest pictures, and examine the components that make them so interesting.
Gérôme was born in Vesoul; his father was a goldsmith, and his mother a merchant's daughter. Gérôme  was something of a prodigy at school, receiving prizes in chemistry, physics and oil painting.  He started his drawing lessons at age nine and his painting tutorials at 14.  At 16, he went to Paris to study with Paul Delaroche (1797-1856).
Gérôme was a very popular student – much as he would later become a much admired and beloved adult.  He was invariably friendly and often helped out fellow students with food or pocket money.  During his third year at the atelier, the school closed following a bout of depression suffered by Delarouche.  His wife, Louise (daughter of painter Horace Vernet) had died, and a fellow student had died in a duel.  Gérôme accompanied his teacher on a trip to Rome along with two other artists, helping the older man overcome his despair.
Gérôme would later call this period in Rome the happiest of his life.  He spent his time looking at great masterworks and studying antiquities.  However, he also came down with typhoid and his mother had to come from Vesoul to care for him.  Gérôme returned to Paris in 1844 and finished his studies with Charles Gleyre (1806-1874).  Gleyre also taught Monet, Renoir and Whistler, and was also an enthusiast of the Near East – an enthusiasm that would be shared by Gérôme. 
Gérôme lived during a great period that could well be called the era of the Artist Adventurer.  At a time when travel involved health risks, physical discomforts and potentially lethal hazards that we in 2011 can only imagine, Gérôme spent much of his time exploring the world.  His first trip to Turkey happened in 1855, when he went there to make studies for a large official commission.  Afterwards, he visited Egypt in 1857.  Later travels included a three-and-a-half month excursion to the Middle East with eight friends; by this time he had learned Arabic and was a seasoned traveler as well as a lively and convivial companion. Leaving from Marseilles, they disembarked at Alexandria and journeyed up the Nile to Cairo and Giza prior to taking a train to Suez and a safari to Mount Sinai via the east bank of the Dead Sea.  Gérôme and company then moved on across the peninsula of Aquaba to Petra and finally to Jerusalem.   Later, he visited Syria and Judea, as well as Turkey, Spain and Algiers, Holland, Greece, London, Sicily and Italy.
To these travels in historical perspective – most of these places were impossibly far, distant and exotic to the average 19th Century European or American.  And while I’m not suggesting that Gérôme was Indiana Jones with a paintbrush, I am saying that his travels were an act of heroism and exploration of a type that is no longer possible in our shrinking world.  Other adventures for Gérôme include fighting a duel and viewing the opening of the Suez Canal – in short, the swashbuckling Gérôme makes the squalid episodes in the lives of 21st Century “street” artists look like weak tea, indeed.
Between periods of intense work and travel, Gérôme found time to marry and have a family -- four daughters and one son, Jean (who wished to be a painter, as well, but died in his 20s).  As Gérôme  aged, he became a celebrated teacher and something of a national institution.  He was a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, and entitled to a full military funeral when he died.  His Requiem Mass was mobbed by the public, attended by the President of the Senate, the Director of Fine Arts, the former President of the Republic, the mayor of Vesoul and many painters and writers.  He is buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in front of the statue of Sorrow he had cast in memory of his son Jean.
Near the end of his life, Gérôme was a vocal critic of the Impressionists.  An intelligent and perceptive man, he saw the tides of artistic training and taste changing.  Artists were giving up on drawing, on intensive training, on historical perspective, and giving themselves over to ‘feeling’ and ‘expression’ – abandoning discipline, intellectual and compositional rigor, and a centuries-old artistic tradition.  He saw the writing on the wall, and it was the first tragic step that would lead to later, more risible absurdities like Jackson Pollack, David Hockney and Marcel Duchamp.
Like many of the artists of this period who traveled to the Orient (which, at the time, was anything east of Istanbul), and who painted what they saw there, Gérôme was called an Orientalist.  Today’s picture, Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard, is a wonderful evocation of this style.
The composition of the picture is remarkable, ‘reading’ across the canvas from left to right a through-line of action.  The white veiled women are each distinct individuals by the color of their robes and the poise of their individual poses.  The woman feeding the pigeons extends her hand in easy grace, Gérôme depicting the birdfeed as it gently drifts towards the ground.  Look at her robe – the color is unmistakable – the same gentle tint of blue used by artists for centuries when depicting the Virgin Mary.  I cannot with certainty say that Gérôme consciously wished to evoke the Madonna, but this figure in blue feeding the flock of pigeons has a distinct Christian feel.  Surely it is significant that the light catches some of the pigeons, bleaching them dove-white, and that angels also have wings. 
The palace guard, however, in red robe and high, white hat, is a true outsider to the scene.  Unlike the women, his face is uncovered, but his skin is dark and his robe a distinct and dramatic military red.  One of his arms is behind his back, his other occupied in front of his body – he is not in any way involved in her act of charity and nourishment, which is particularly feminine.
The birds are masterfully done, flying in-and-out of shafts of bright sunlight.  Their shadows are cast on the sun-drenched steps, and they nest in the beams overhead.  The sense of flight is complete, with elegant wings suspending them mid-air, mixed with a sense of both delicacy and movement.
The most fascinating thing Gérôme does in this picture is, perhaps, the way in which he has captured the lofty space of the courtyard.  The pillars have support beams stretching back to the wall, providing a sense of depth; the pillars on the left are partially lit by the sun, providing a sense of height and scale.  One can almost feel the cool recesses of the space, hear the coo of the birds, and, perhaps, watch where one steps.
The door behind the birdfeeder leads into darkness and the cooler recesses within, while the window to the right opens out into the sun and open air.  This enclosed space –and Gérôme was a master of the enclosed space – is fully realized and complete.
More Gérôme tomorrow!

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