Jean-Léon Gérôme, <em>Corinth</em>, 1903–04.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Corinth, 1903–04. Tinted marble, colored marble, gilt bronze, enamel, and semiprecious stones. Dimensions, including base: 78 x 17 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. Courtesy J. Nicholson, Beverly Hills, California.

Wisely, the exhibition curators have not attempted to defuse the issue; but they have attempted to place Gérôme’s Orientalizing pictures in as rich a contemporary context as possible, showing that the nineteenth-century construction of “the Orient” involved self- fashioning as well as European fantasizing, and that the flow of cultural information, cultural documentation, and cultural imagination flowed West-to-East as well as East-to-West. This strategy by no means absolves Gérôme of his complicity in Europe’s colonial-era sins, but it does lay out some interesting scenarios. The painter was apparently very well connected at the Ottoman court, where there was a brisk market in European pictures. One scenario plots the use made both by Gérôme and his Ottoman contacts of the singing bashi-bazouk, whom Gérôme celebrated in an 1868 canvas.27

In the case of many of the Orientalizing pictures on exhibit, the viewing dynamic, at least for me, recapitulated to a greater or lesser extent that of The Snake Charmer: a constant struggle to maintain an intellectual distance and a critical political stance in the face of a seductive visual experience, the presence or absence of inviting flesh, both male and female, notwithstanding.

In addition, there were other aspects of these works that complicated the viewing experience even further. The first, which was primarily historical, involved the extent, alluded to above, to which Gérôme’s construction of the Orient was part of a complicated circulation of ideas and images that was centered both on Paris and Constantinople, and in which the West by no means played an obviously dominant role. This aspect of the story is complex, involving as it does French and Ottoman foreign and domestic cultural policy, diplomatic overtures and behind-the- scenes machinations, the career strategies of Gérôme and other French artists, as well as French and Constantinopolitan dealers. This makes for a lot of text, both at the exhibition and in the catalog. (I must say that I found the reading eye opening and provocative, especially when posed against overly simplistic readings of Said’s equally trenchant critique.)

Some remarkable and historically valuable images on display, including a selection of photographs by the firm Abdullah frères, photographers to the Ottoman court, testify both to the desire of that court to document its imperial realms using the latest Western technological means, and to the use which Gérôme himself made of this kind of local documentation. For example, a photo of the interior of the Topkapi Palace is refigured as the back wall of the outdoor street scene in The Snake Charmer. Although this may seem a nominal example, it is symptomatic of the systematic, synthetic, combinatorial strategy that Gérôme used in assembling in the studio what appear in his most successful pictures as naturalized, seamless constructs: he can give the fictive world of the West’s Oriental dream a striking physical authority that belies the obvious artifice, for example, of poetic evocations in the contemporary, romantic mode.

The second, and this may simply reflect my own unguarded or unfiltered reaction, involves what seemed to me a real sense of dignified presence, of internal power or authority projected by many of the male figures depicted by Gérôme in his Orientalizing works. Although this is true of many of the actors in his multi-figure compositions, the feeling was strongest in my one-on-one confrontations with individual figures. The brooding melancholy of the portrait of the Greek freedom fighter Marcus Boutsaris (1874) is a case in point, although, save for the exoticism of the costume and setting, this might well be a contemporary European portrait.

Footnotes

  1. Scott Allan, “Bashi-Bazouk Singing,” in Spectacular Art, 270–71. The so-called bashi-bazouks were irregular troops in the service of the Ottoman Empire. Of diverse ethnic and geographical origin as a group, the individual on whom Gérôme focuses here can be identified as an Arnaut, or Albanian mercenary. Although the ethnographic detail is meticulous, the comedic composition and the overt reference to Manet’s Spanish Singer (1860) are obvious studio conceits, as the catalog points out.
Further Reading