Welcome to the fourth installment of our weeklong overview of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), one of the most celebrated masters of his time, and now little more than a footnote to the general public in the wake of Modernism. (Ah, but how he is cherished by connoisseurs and the many artists working to restore the skills and ideals of the classical world, the Italian Renaissance and the Beaux-Arts tradition!)
Duel After the Masquerade, painted in 1857, is one of the most remarkable and haunting pictures in Gérôme’s oeuvre. The picture depicts the aftermath of a duel after a costume ball – a foggy morning in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris. Pierrot is dying in the arms of the Duc de Guise; a man in the costume of a Venetian doge examines the wound while Domino behind them is overcome with emotion and remorse. To the right, the victor, in the costume of an American Indian, leaves alongside Harlequin.
What is it about Duel After the Masquerade that is so suggestive, so disquieting, so evocative? Is it the fact that we are looking at the last moments of Pierrot’s life? Surely not, as we have seen hundreds of pictures featuring men dying. Is it the look of concern and consternation of his fellows? Or is it simply the fact that a man in clown’s makeup is always both more-and-less than human…?
The point of the duel can be deduced by Gérôme’s clever use of costume. Pierrot is a pantomime character; a sad clown in love with Columbine, who usually leaves him for Harlequin. Pierrot is the quintessential loser – he is too naive for his own good, is the butt of pranks, and invariably trusts the wrong person. Harlequin, who is leading the winning duelist away, on the other hand, is a servant of the devil, helping chase the souls of the damned to hell. Clearly, these two men have not tried to kill each other over a point of honor, but over a woman and, in Gérôme’s picture, evil has triumphed.
And perhaps it is that – the clear triumph of evil – that is so haunting in this picture. The doomed Pierrot is clearly not a villain, and probably not the aggressor, either. Those supporting his body during his final moments are too horrified, too gentle, too dismayed for the dying man to have been an agent of evil. Indeed, Harlequin leads the Indian away (as he leads away damned souls) with their backs to us, as if we are unworthy of their regard.
What is remarkable about Duel After the Masquerade is how different it is from the rest of Gérôme’s body of work. We have seen his mastery of ornate detail (from pillars and scrollwork, to tapestries and marble), but aside from some detail on the doge’s costume, there is none of that here. We have also looked at his remarkably lush use of color – but the color scheme of Duel is extremely muted. Much of the picture is white (or off-white), a non-color, the color of death. (Black, on the other hand, is all colors; white is the color of the void.) Gérôme marvelously obscures the trees and two carriages in the background; this is not some impressionist technique, but, rather, a superb evocation of fog, slowly burning off with the dawn. It is a brilliant use of a wintery palette, and quite unlike his other work.
Gérôme poses his players in a dramatic fashion. The characters to the left are larger, more delineated, and Pierrot is outlined by the colors of the men around him. Indeed, the red of the doge’s robe and angle of his elbow seem to point directly at the dying man’s wound – a dramatic drop of blood on the white costume. His face is covered in white makeup, but his arm now also has the white bloodless quality of death.
These figures are anchored to those on the right by the cloak in the snow that bridges them together. The figures walking away seem to merge into the fog and nothingness – they deliver the necessary information for the narrative, but never keep us from the great drama of the dying man on the left.
A magnificent painting – and an atypical piece from a great master. We will further explore Gérôme’s versatility tomorrow with a look at his painting of Michelangelo.
More Gérôme tomorrow!