Welcome back to our week-long overview of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), one of the great Artist Adventurers of the Victorian era. Today we are looking at a picture as dramatically different from the spiritual calm of Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard as is humanly imaginable, the masterful Pollice Verso, painted in 1872.
“Pollice Verso” is an ambiguous Latin phrase meaning “with a turned thumb” (not necessarily “thumbs down”). It was common during gladiatorial battles for the audience (or emperor) to express satisfaction by motioning with thumbs up or thumbs down – however, it is unknown if thumbs up meant mercy or execution. So, this begs the question in Gérôme’s canvas: are the spectators arguing for death, or clemency? Though it is unclear in the narrative of the painting, the faces of the spectators leave little doubt that additional blood will be shed.
Gérôme was a master at depicting enclosed space – and though the impression of Pollice Verso is of an open immensity, it, too, is an enclosed space. The arena wall surrounding the combatants effectively closes off the picture (and any hope of escape), and the far distance in the upper left of the canvas is blocked by a mass of people. To further emphasize that this is not open space, look at what Gérôme does with light: there are streaks of sunlight crossing the sand of the arena, and streaking up the wall and into the spectators. If there are streaks of sunlight, there must be some obstruction overhead, casting the majority of the action in shadow. What that obstruction is remains unknown – but look at what it does for Gérôme: he uses the light to create “arrows” pointing at the main action, and up at the people commenting on it. Gérôme’s genius for composition is one of the many things that make him such a remarkable painter – so let’s look at some of the things he puts within his framework.
The gladiator stands above his vanquished foes, forming a tight triangle of action. (Note how a streak of sunlight rides up his arm and helmet.) The fallen trident underscores the triangular shape that would’ve been somewhat mitigated by the outstretched arm of the victim. With a few deft strokes, Gérôme manages to mix blood and sand … painting a red mud that is wonderfully visceral.
Next, look at the Emperor slightly to the left over the gladiator’s helmet. Apparently he is above the drama occurring around him: his thumb is neither up nor down, indeed, it looks as if he is sampling some savory from the dish at his left. The woman to the right of the gladiator’s helmet seems greatly distressed at the outcome … and who is that, leaning over her shoulder? A friend? Or a rival of the vanquished man?
Finally, look at the bloodthirsty Vestal Virgins, all dressed in white. Essentially priestesses, they behave with disquieting abandon, more like harpies than women with the sacred duty of maintaining the flame at the House of Vesta in the Forum. It is one of the ugliest depictions of womanhood in the Victorian corpus, and it is somehow more disgusting than the violence at their feet. (Have a moment, too, for the faces of the crowd one tier above the vestal virgins: lust, disdain and violence are etched on all of them.)
Other details richly ornament the picture: Gérôme has a sure hand in creating the cool feel of the marble walls, the highly ornate pillars and tapestries, and the decorative relief under the Emperor’s box. A lesser painter would have blocked these in and filled them with dense color; Gérôme, instead, delineates each component with extensive detail.
Though a grim picture of violence, depravity and decadence, Pollice Verso is a masterpiece, and one of Gérôme’s most accomplished pictures. It is clear to see the influence Gérôme has had on our conception of the ancient world, and his work echoes through the vision of filmmakers as diverse as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Ridley Scott.
More Gérôme tomorrow!