Review

The Spectacular Art of Jean-Leon Gerome

Getty Center
Los Angeles
Glenn Harcourt

1

In 1867, the novelist and critic Emile Zola curtly dismissed the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme as “but a cynical manufacturer of anecdotal images for mass reproduction.”2 In other words, Gérôme was the antithesis, in both theory and practice, of “sincere” and committed Modernists, like Édouard Manet, who were respected by the likes of Zola.

Zola’s evaluation was right on the mark. Gérôme was indeed a master of the telling anecdote as opposed to the grand rhetorical gesture. He made extensive use of photography at every stage of his artistic process, while the Parisian firm of Goupil & Cie, run by the artist’s father-in-law, oversaw the photographic and photo-lithographic reproduction of his work, as well as its widespread distribution in every conceivable size and format—to fit every wallet and purse. Gérôme’s embrace of photography and lithographic reproduction left him open to oft-repeated charges that he was no better than an illustrator. But it undoubtedly maximized his audience, and might be seen as a process of democratization, rather than one of self-conscious commodification.

Zola’s critical voice was by no means the only one. Although the artist was immensely popular both at home and abroad, and regularly decorated by the Parisian art establishment, he was just as regularly derogated in both the progressive and the conservative press. Their reactions and Gérôme’s work, taken all-in-all, suggest an artist whose pictorial production was akin to that of a possible Postmodernism, the salient characteristics of which might include brilliant if “unethical” pictorial strategies, internal contradictions, self-consciously subversive intentions, and a proto-cinematic sensibility.3

This, at least, seems to be the major thesis advanced by an impressive re-evaluation of the artist’s work, The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme, recently mounted at the J. Paul Getty Museum: a show whose none-too-subtle evocation of Guy Debord’s Situationist manifesto The Society of the Spectacle is hardly accidental.4 Despite its articulate defense by the authors of the catalog, this thesis that Gérôme’s work escapes the Modernist master narrative as a foreshadowing of Postmodernism, rather like a roll of distant thunder, must stand or fall finally on the strength and complexity of the works themselves. Indeed, Gérôme’s output is the product of a painter whose masterful technical skill draws you into his represented worlds in ways that entice, seduce, and finally force you to grapple with them both on their own pictorial and ideological terms, and in terms of their positions as artifacts serving the interests of twenty-first-century history and criticism.

In surveying the rather sprawling and heterogeneous show, three overlapping groups of works raise particularly salient issues: those that point toward the dissolution of traditional modes of history painting; those that invoke and explore the dynamics of sexual politics at the intersection between pictorial and social worlds; and those that exploit the ideologically charged, nineteenth-century fascination with all things “Oriental.” Finally, some account must be taken of Gérôme’s interest in photography as a tool in the service of painting, as well as his long-standing association with the Parisian publishing firm of Goupil & Cie, and the implications of that association for the marketing both of Gérôme’s work and of his image as perhaps the first painter absolutely at home in a world of mechanical reproduction.

Footnotes

  1. The exhibition was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, in association with the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. the exhibition travels to the Musée D’Orsay from October 19, 2010 to January 23, 2011, and to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza from March 1 to May 22, 2011.
  2. Scott C. Allan, “Gérôme before the Tribunal: the Painter’s Early Reception,” in Laurence de Cars, Dominique de Font-Réaulx, and Édouard Papet, eds., The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) (Paris: skira, 2010), 89.
  3. Let me be quite clear here in asserting that this list of characteristics is by no means intended either as a definition of “Postmodernism” or as a comprehensive description of Gérôme’s artistic practice. In my own view, the term “Postmodern[ism]” has increasingly become a portmanteau word, capable of subsuming a virtually limitless array of theoretical positions and artistic practices. Clearly, on chronological grounds alone, it is not possible to identify Gérôme as a literally Postmodern artist. But it is possible, I think, to identify aspects of his practice that might be descriptive of Postmodern approaches already latent in the Modernist strategies against which Gérôme so often positioned himself.
  4. In addition to the lavish catalog, the exhibition was accompanied by a slim volume of adroit and provocative essays, which commendably showcased younger scholars alongside more established academics. See Scott Allan and Mary Morton, eds., Reconsidering Gérôme (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010).