We can see an example of such a historically informed approach in Gérôme’s extraordinary The Death of Marshal Ney (1868), also known as December 7, 1815, 9 O’Clock in the Morning. Especially given Gérôme’s own conservative, even Bonapartist politics, this stark canvas, in which we see the executed Marshal Ney of Napoleon’s triumphant armies lying dead in a muddy, rutted road against the backdrop of a dirty wall marred by partially effaced imperial graffiti, brings home the brutality of the marshal’s death as a fact of furtive banality—almost, as it were, the government’s “dirty little secret.”11 The painter makes brilliant use of the military regulation that required that the executed general’s body lay “for a quarter of an hour in the place of execution,”12 while the commander of the detail that has carried out the execution pauses for a final backward glance. This kind of presentation violates all of the accepted and heroic codes of mid-nineteenth century history painting as clarified by the exhibition catalog discussion, which provides a trenchant comparison with Manet’s contemporaneous Execution of [the Emperor] Maximilian (1867–68), which retains a traditional “heroic intensity,” even as it struggles against tradition on the level of form and facture.13

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryné Before the Tribunal, 1861.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryné Before the Tribunal, 1861. Oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x 50 3/8 in. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Photo: Elke Walford. Courtesy Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY.Equally instructive might be a comparison between Manet’s notorious Olympia (1863) and Gérôme’s Phryné before the Areopagus (1861) (also called Phryné before the Tribunal), which was exhibited at the Salon of 1861, and the object of extensive vituperation, caricature, and parody. While Manet’s nude drew fire both for the quality of its painterly surface (all paint and no woman) and for the character of its subject, whose self-assured control over the commodification of her own body has become an introductory course set piece in discussions of the theme of the reclining female nude,14 Gérôme’s attack follows a different line. Thus, while his depiction of Phryné, the mistress of Praxiteles and model for the Knidian Aphrodite, brought before the Athenian court on a charge of impiety, was criticized, for example, as but “a little girl ashamed, who wants to hide,”15 the real opprobrium falls not on the female figure, but on her judges, or, as H. Delaborde opined, “twenty satyrs dressed as judges.”16 The spectacle of Phryné’s unveiling becomes as it were the unveiling of a picture within a picture, where the judges, each wonderfully and satirically individualized in his response of mock horror that undoubtedly (and not always effectively) masks his desire, stands in for the external male viewers of the picture as a whole. The hypocritical sexual politics of the Parisian bourgeoisie of the early 1860s are unveiled as surely as the body of the coy young model.17

In general, however, Gérôme’s essays in sexuality are cast in the milieu of classical antiquity, such as The Cockfight (1846), The Idylle (also known as Daphnis and Chloe) (1852), and even King Candaules (1859). They engage our attention with languid bodies— both male and female—posed in settings of extraordinary, yet never overpowering detail. This tendency reaches its apex in the extravagant The Greek Interior (The Gynaeceum)(1850), whose central standing figure looks forward toward the Phryné, while the languid figure sleeping in the foreground might well serve to remind us that in the middle of the nineteenth century, “the Orient” still began in Greece.18

Footnotes

  1. Laurence des Cars, “The Death of Marshal Ney,” Spectacular Art, 160. Des Cars quotes a contemporary history, demonstrably known to Gérôme, in which it is reported: “the government, fearing large popular gatherings that might give rise to [political] clashes took the course of executing him [ney], so to speak, on the sly.”
  2. Ibid., 160–62.
  3. Ibid., 162. Another obvious comparison is with Goya’s 1814 Third of May, 1808—itself a “history” painting that challenges the canon according to what we might now identify as a more orthodox “modernist” strategy
  4. Manet’s Olympia was clearly cast as a critique of Titian’s 1538 Venus of Urbino.
  5. Edgar Degas quoted in Édouard Papet, “Phryné Before the Areopagus,” Spectacular Art, 107.
  6. Ibid., 106.
  7. For a discussion of the model’s identity and the existence of a nude photographic study in the pose of Phryné, produced at Gérôme’s request by the famous Parisian photographer Nadar, see Dominique de Font-Réault, “Standing Female Nude, The Model for Phryné,” in Spectacular Art, 46. What is really being unveiled here is a piece of sculpture, and a clear reference to the model’s veiling of her own sculpted image can be seen in The End of the Séance (1886), which is reproduced in Spectacular Art, 307.
  8. The so-called “Neo-Grec” sensibility of much of this generally early work is nicely detailed in the catalog entries for the individual pictures. In addition, see the discussion of The Cockfight in Allan Doyle’s “Groping the Antique: Michelangelo and the Erotics of Tradition” in Reconsidering Gérôme.