In another key group of much later paintings, Gérôme thematized his own work, not as a painter, but as a sculptor. These canvases were executed relatively late in the artist’s life, after he had become seriously involved with the creation of sculpture in the round.
Taken as a group, Gérôme’s polychrome sculpture is difficult to like. Their nineteenth- century history and context is complex.19 Their web of possible references, precedents, and subsequent reverberations is fraught: recovering an ancient technology and aesthetic, do they look back toward the classical Athena Parthenos of Pheidias?20 Or, as ironically kitsch commodities, do they point forward, as the catalog seems to suggest, toward such provocatively bombastic pieces of self-advertisement as Jeff Koons’s Dirty Jeff on Top (1991)?21 Many express a remote, frigid sexuality; a few, notably the Tanagra (1890) with her formal pose and wonderfully if artlessly placed feet, seem to preserve something of the vivaciousness of the living models.22 Alternatively, the Bellona (1892) is presented in full Wagnerian drag, and the Sarah Bernhardt (1895–1901) is frighteningly ghoulish, a true fin-de-siècle vampire.
If the catalog tells us anything, it may be, first, that as a mature artist Gérôme embraced a medium (or, perhaps more precisely, a variety of related mediums) that had previously been of marginal importance to his creative process and began an intense and spirited exploration of their possibilities; and, second, that he was never able to resolve this exploration to his satisfaction. Perhaps all this boils down to saying that within the space of a few years, we see condensed all the explosive energy and irresolution that in fact marked his entire career as a painter.
What complicates this reading of these later works, however, are the paintings (as well as a number of photographs) within which the artist mostly restages his own workshop practice. There remains a tension that we can see summed up most forcefully in two works: the mythological Pygmalion and Galatea (1890) and the much more mundane The Artist’s Model (1895). In the first instance, the power of art to literally vivify stone is captured with a beautifully understated exuberance, and the head-down transformation of Galatea’s body is handled with a sureness of touch that reminds one of Daphne’s transformation from girl to tree in Gianlorenzo Bernini’s famous sculpture. In my estimation, one could hardly ask for a more perfect pictorial realization of the Pygmalion myth. Even the sexuality, though obvious, is muted and a bit ambiguous.
Although what looks to be a framed oil sketch of the earlier canvas hangs on the wall of the studio in The Artist’s Model (1895), the aged Gérôme is hardly comparable to the youthful Pygmalion. All that remains of the miraculous transformation from marble to flesh is the assuredly not fortuitous juxtaposition of the model’s and figure’s left arms, leaving us with the uncanny impression that the model has one arm of flesh and one of marble. The sculptor works slowly, carefully, caressing and polishing the figure’s thighs, his eyes traveling toward the crotch of the model, whose part in the actual process of production has long since been rendered redundant. The model can now only function as a kind of muse, a physical, sexual presence alive in the workshop, yet still and silent as marble, protected from physical contact by the artist’s gloves. She is available only to his gaze, which is the gaze of an old man in a dark time, when myth is no longer an active cultural force and the process of production is at best difficult and uncertain.23
- Édouard Papet, “‘Father Polychrome’: The Sculpture of Jean-Léon Gérôme,” in Spectacular Art, 291–95. The polychrome sculptures raised at least one other issue of major importance at the time they were made (having to do with the practice of polychromy in antiquity), but that topic would be too much to take on here.↵
- Papet, 293. See the illustration of Charles Simart’s Reconstruction of Pheidias’ Athena Parthenos (1855).↵
- Guy Cogeval, “A Precise, Perverse Kind of Beauty,” in Spectacular Art, 13.↵
- See also the pose of the Seated Nude (ca. 1898–1902).↵
- See the discussion of the late studio pictures in Doyle, “Groping the Antique,” in Reconsidering Gérôme, 16–18.↵