It should be noted that many of Gérôme’s models are male, and a generally unacknowledged homoerotic dynamic is at play in many of his depictions of the male nude. This sometimes latent, sometimes explicit homoerotic charge may in fact comprise a residue of “the homoerotic pedagogy and politics of [Jacques- Louis] David’s atelier,” as Allan Doyle argues in his provocative Reconsidering Gérôme essay, “Groping the Antique.”24 But, whatever its source, it provides a potentially disruptive, male-on-male counterpoint to the dynamics of objectification and commodification that are so readily implicated in Gérôme’s sexual politics as usual. The creative myth of the chaste and devoted Pygmalion and his Galatea is confronted by the tawdry anecdote of the blind and lecherous Michelangelo and the Belvedere Torso.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, <em>The Snake Charmer</em>, circa 1870.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer, circa 1870. Oil on canvas. 32 13/16 x 48 1/16 in. Courtesy of and © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Photo: Michael Agee.

Perhaps the most dubious of all Gérôme’s distinctions is not one associated with his relentless repudiation of progressive currents in nineteenth-century French painting, nor his often brutal pummeling at the hands of both progressive and conservative critics, but rather a decision made decades after his death by a cover designer for Vintage Books: a decision that inextricably linked a detail from his canvas, The Snake Charmer (c. 1870), with the blistering polemic of the Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said’s iconic, post-colonial manifesto Orientalism (1st ed., New York, 1978). Said was primarily a literary theorist and a critic of texts, as well as a vocal advocate for Palestinian rights. However, his analysis of European textual culture during the nineteenth century, which plots in exhaustive detail the ethno-centric and colonialist construction of an image of “the Orient” that functioned to define and defend a set of political, religious, and cultural power relations advantageous always to the European position, can easily be applied to the visual arts as well.25 Framed by Said’s argument, Gérôme’s Snake Charmer (which still adorns the cover of the 25th anniversary edition of the book) seems to capture a world of exotic decadence, violence, racial depravity, slavery, pagan indolence, child pornography, and bestiality (have I left anything out?) that defines the essence of the softest underbelly of European Orientalism. It is a shameful picture, serving a shameful ideology.

It is also, perhaps unfortunately, an extremely seductive picture. A congeries of minute descriptive detail of diverse racial and ethnic types (which, curiously, never sink to the level of caricature), a backdrop of incredible decorative and calligraphic complexity, a beautiful chromatic balance of blue and brown (each seemingly present in a hundred shades), a splash of red and green, the tongue of the snake, the tilt of a head, the sparkle of an eye, the flash of brilliant white teeth, innocence, experience, danger conjured and controlled: it is a world, fantastic in conception, fictitious in form, malign in ideology—and completely captivating and convincing. It is hard to look at without coming to feel that the richness of your aesthetic experience must inevitably be tainted by its depravity. For an aesthetically sophisticated nineteenth-century viewer already implicated in that ideological world, the experience must have been extraordinary, as it was for me 130 years later.

This is, admittedly, a hard rap for Gérôme to beat. And it is made the more so by works like For Sale (The Slave Market) (1871), which, although rooted in what was still a real international problem in 1871, dwells on the brutal and erotic aspects of the transaction with an attention that certainly seems more kinkily pornographic than righteously indignant. We are clearly not in the presence of a champion of human rights, just a canny businessman who knew perfectly well that “sex sells,” whether in the slave markets of contemporary Egypt and ancient Rome, or the salons of nineteenth-century Europe.26

Footnotes

  1. Ibid., 18.
  2. The “classic” study is Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient,” Art in America (May 1983): 118–31; 187–91.
  3. Not surprisingly, the dynamic of power and submission in Gérôme’s Orientalism plays across issues of both gender and race. Again, this aspect of the work is too complex for an adequate treatment in the context of this review, but we might once more instructively compare the painter with his contemporary Manet. In this case, Olympia, with its aggressive courtesan attended by her black “mammy” (this might almost be a scene played out in antebellum New Orleans) can be contrasted with Gérôme’s 1872 Moorish Bath (Lady of Cairo Bathing), where the auburn-haired model who takes the “white slave’s” part acts out a pose of passive and reticent vulnerability with an impressive pedigree that spans the antique crouching Venus type, and images of Diana, Bathsheba, and a host of others. At the same time, her African attendant (who shares with Manet’s servant an attention wholly internalized on her “mistress”) projects an image of sexualized physical power.
Further Reading