Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gérôme Week Part III – Éminence Grise

From the extremely graphic Pollice Verso, we now move to the extremely subtle with Gérôme’s 1873 picture Éminence Grise.
Éminence Grise (French for grey eminence) is one of Gérôme’s most quiet compositions, and one that perfectly captures the man’s innate sense of Romanticism.  The phrase originally referred to François Leclerc du Tremblay (1577 – 1638), also known as Père Joseph, a French Capuchin friar who was a confident and agent of Cardinal Richelieu.  “Grey eminence” over time came to mean a powerful advisor who operates secretly or unofficially – an often malefic power behind the throne.  (Think Karl Rove with holy orders, greater intelligence and panache.)
Père Joseph began his professional relationship with Richelieu in 1612 – and the full extent of the services he rendered to the Cardinal are still shrouded in mystery.  In 1627, Père Joseph was involved in the siege of La Rochelle; he also colluded with Richelieu to defeat the Habsburgs prior to unifying Europe in the hopes of resurrecting the Crusades.  As agent to the Cardinal, Père Joseph was involved in the 1630 Diet of Regensburg to block the emperor’s plans, and then advocated the intervention of Gustavus Adolphus.  Throughout all of these intrigues (and many of them form the backdrop of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers),   Père Joseph maintained a monkish austerity and simplicity.  Like many of the truly powerful, he sought to hide behind a mask of simplicity.
Gérôme’s Éminence Grise depicts Père Joseph descending the grand staircase of the Palais Cardinal.  Let us look at Gérôme’s composition for a moment.  The figures on the upper and lower stairs all form a perfect arrow, pointing at Père Joseph.  Add to that, all of the figures in the picture are looking at the friar, so the focal point is unmistakable.
To maintain a fluid motion for the eye, Gérôme has a streak of sunlight (note that none of the lamps are lit, so this must be light from an unseen window) on the lower right hand of the canvas, snaking up a few steps, casting little daubs of light against the wall, and then ending with another figure looking at the friar from behind a banister.  These little things, so often unregistered by the mind but enticing to the eye, are the components that drive the ‘motion’ of a picture – and Gérôme’s mastery of composition is one of the most fecund facets of his genius.
Look, too, at how Gérôme directs his players.  The friar, in sandals and rough-hewn robe, is oblivious to the obsequious bows of the courtiers around him.  Père Joseph gazes into his devotional book, but are his thoughts on religion, or public policy?  He stands before another of Gérôme’s wonderfully realized tapestries, here a symbol of power and monarchy.
The people on the stairs are a wonderfully diverse bunch: musketeers, courtiers, churchmen (how wonderfully the red robe of the cleric catches the light, with an almost tactile satiny finish), and palace guards.  Their bodies are bowed but their heads are slightly elevated – both looking at Père Joseph and hoping to be noticed.
Of course, the railing of the staircase, the lamps, the ornate costuming and the marble pillars are delineated with Gérôme’s customary pitch-perfect draftsmanship and ornate attention to detail.
Looking at Gérôme’s artistry, it is perhaps best here to also discuss his reputation as a teacher.  Gérôme taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris for 40 years, and he was also co-creator (with Charles Bargue) of celebrated Drawing Course  (“Cours de Dessin”) first published in Paris in the 1860s and 1870s.  These 200 lithographs were copied by art students around the world before attempting to draw from a live model.  The course was divided into three sections, each more difficult.  The Drawing Course had been unavailable for decades until it was reconstructed by historian Gerald M. Ackerman and artist Graydon Parrish in a heroic act of reconstruction.  Anyone interested in serious arts training should obtain a copy.  (See the cover below.)
A list of Gérôme’s successful students would be quite a long one, but a partial list includes: Frank Boggs, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, George Bridgman,Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Alexander Harrison, William McGregor Paxton and Abbott Handerson Thayer.
More Gérôme tomorrow!

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