Welcome to the fifth and final installment of our weeklong overview of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). Today we look at one of Gérôme’s most intimate and affecting pictures, Michelangelo, painted in 1849.
When discussing Michelangelo, it is important to remember that Gérôme was not just a great painter, but a gifted sculptor as well. He made his public debut as a sculptor at the Paris International Exhibition of 1878, with a bronze group of figures called The Gladiators, which were inspired by his own painting Pollice Verso from 1872. Gérôme had been making plaster models to use as an aid in painting for many years, and his abiding interest in artistic anatomy led naturally to modeling and sculpting. He sculpted Omphale, a life-size depiction of the Lydian queen watching the labors of Hercules, in marble. Other figures include Tanagra (1890) and Cupid and the Infant Bacchus. (The French government wanted to buy Omphale, but he declined, finding the offer of purchase satisfying enough.)
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564), of course, was the great Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet and engineer. Though gifted in many of the arts, Michelangelo primarily thought of himself as a sculptor, and thought the art of painting, in some way, precious and effete. His muscular figures, carved on monumental scale, reflect his vision of the inherent divinity of man and his key place in the heavens as the servant of God.
Michelangelo was the subject of many paintings by 19th Century artists. Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (1797-1890) painted a series of pictures about Michelangelo in the 1840s, from which Gérôme borrowed costume details. Gérôme depicts the Renaissance master as old and blind (there is no historical evidence for later blindness, so here Gérôme takes a bit of poetic license). An apprentice guides the old artist’s hands to one of the most famous sculptures of antiquity, the Belvedere Torso, which was an endless source of inspiration to the younger Michelangelo.
Michelangelo is, in many way, Gérôme’s most sentimental picture. Michelangelo is old and frail, stooped and unable to see one of the great works that he loved so in his youth. The boy, small, frail and supple, leads the older man along. The scene is obviously Michelangelo’s studio, littered with his marbles, his hammer and his gathered drawings.
The Belvedere Torso, now on view at the Vatican, is nowhere near as sizable as that depicted in Gérôme’s painting, so again the artist takes a bit of liberty for the sake of his composition. But look here at the composition and the close grouping of the figures.
Michelangelo and the apprentice are both contrasted in profile, one aged and bearded, the other hairless and young. The old man’s body is lumpy and stooped in contrast to the boy who is lissome and gently curved. The lines of the boy’s pants point upward at his own profile and Michelangelo’s, while also drawing attention to the curve of his bottom.
The torso, on the other hand, is everything Michelangelo and the boy are not. It is monumental, vigorous, muscular, heroic and larger-than-life. The disparity between the three figures is also the point of sympathy; it is impossible to look at the painting and not fall into reverie.
What, I wonder, was Gérôme thinking, exactly? Is he making some comment on loss of the senses as we age … or thinking about the sense of touch, specifically? Was he contrasting youth and age? Or was it something else? I prefer to think that Gérôme, one of the great masters of his age, was also making a comment on the spiritual, on the idealizing quality of art. Both Michelangelo and the boy reach out to touch an idealized torso, and vision of the divine, a view of humanity’s spiritual perfection made flesh (or stone). What Gérôme wanted to say, I believe, is that when we touch art, it touches us, and brings meaning and transcendence into our lives.
For years this picture hung at the Dahesh Museum in New York, a haven for serious art connoisseurs and students which has, sadly, closed its doors for now. The museum frequently has travelling exhibitions (most recently in Dubai) and if Michelangelo comes near you in one of these shows, I strongly urge you to see it.