As a history painter of impeccable Davidian pedigree, Gérôme often appears to have been willfully transgressive in his disregard for the canons of his art. On the one hand, he seems to have confused trivial anecdote with heroic narrative, as in one of his best known works, the beautifully ironic commedia tragedy Duel after the Ball, which exists in numerous painted versions (as well as photographic and lithographic reproductions in both black and white and color) produced from 1857 through the late 1880s.5 And on the other, he quite clearly ignored the basic rules governing the pictorial presentation of such narratives. Least damning among his transgressions in this regard was a tendency to pile up extraneous, if painstakingly researched and exquisitely rendered, details that dispersed visual interest across the surface of the canvas, a problem often encountered by his critics in his scenes of gladiatorial combat and Christian martyrdom in the Roman arena.6 He was also cited for real or imagined violations of the vaunted rules of classical decorum, as demonstrated perhaps most explicitly in the group of six white-clad vestal virgins who participate with almost demonic glee in the blood sport of Pollice Verso (1872).7

More immediately interesting, although in my view a little overstressed in the Getty exhibition catalog entries, is the notion that Gérôme’s works were occasionally imbued with a kind of proto-cinematic sensibility. The prime example here is The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayers (1863–83). Around the vast space of the deadly amphitheater is arranged a circular a row of condemned prisoners, their bodies slathered with pitch and tied to crude crosses. Almost invisible at first glance, we eventually become aware of a man dressed in blood red who uses a long, thin torch to light the victims one after another. Moving from left to right, the sequence of burning, just lit, and unlit crucifixes constitutes a kind of virtual “pan” that draws our vision along the narrative path of the picture from regal and ravening beasts toward the group of helpless victims. (And starting from this initial pan, it is quite easy to elaborate the mental image of a powerful and horrendous cinematic sequence.)

Jean-Léon Gérôme, <em>The Death of Caesar</em>, 1859–67.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Death of Caesar, 1859–67. Oil on canvas, 33 11/16 x 57 5/16 in. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

But what really distinguishes Gérôme’s most difficult histories is their tendency, combined with one or more of the strategies outlined above, to cast their entire narratives in radically oblique terms. In The Death of Caesar (1867), for example, he marginalizes the body of the dead Caesar, which becomes an implacably mute and lifeless thing;8 and centers the composition on the mosaic head of Medusa, whose silent scream becomes an aporia announcing the void that has momentarily opened up at the heart of the Roman world. Gérôme epitomizes the fleeing assassins in terms of a sharply drawn yet finally opaque anecdote; and borrows a stock figure from comedic genre, the corpulent and (apparently) sleeping senator, to function as an internal observer who becomes “the spectator of history with a capital H,”9 despite the fact that “capital H” history seems resolutely absent from the death scene as the painter portrays it.

Footnotes

  1. Dominque de Font-Réaulx, “Duel After the Ball,” Spectacular Art, 118–121.
  2. Signal examples: the famous Pollice Verso (1872) and The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayers (1863–83).
  3. Nineteenth-century critics found the bloodthirsty reaction of the Vestal Virgins to be a violation of feminine and religious decorum. The Romans would have found such a criticism incomprehensible. Today, such characterizations no longer trouble our critical sensibilities, long inured to such antics through film and TV treatments, including the BBC’s I, Claudius (1976) based on the novels by Robert Graves, the Ridley Scott film Gladiator (2000), and the HBO potboiler Rome (2005; 2007).
  4. He is no longer “…constant as the northern star / Of whose true-fixt and resting quality / There is nofellow in the firmament.” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar III.i) Both Shakespeare and Gérôme certainly reliedon the Twelve Caesars of the first- to second-century Roman historian Suetonius, the standard historical reference for this incident. Shakespeare’s dramatic irony (the quoted speech is Caesar’s last before the assassins strike) is literalized by Gérôme in his canvas.
  5. Laurence des Cars, “The Death of Caesar,” in Spectacular Art, 124.