Much more unsettling, in a sense, and certainly much less European in its superficial aspect, is the extraordinary The Black Bard (1888). The picture is simple in composition,rich in detail, and almost hypnotically powerful in its impact. The figure, swathed in a salmon- colored robe and seated cross-legged on his rug with a pair of lemon-yellow slippers to his left, appears more natural than posed, although his body seems easily to have assumed the static, stable shape of an equilateral triangle. His hands lay informally in his lap. His face is individualized, yet beautifully structured as a set of overlapping darker and lighter circles; and his gaze is intense, and seems fixed on something above or beyond the external observer. At the exhibition, I returned to this work again and again, drawn irresistibly to the bard’s painted presence as if into the presence of a living being, one who is a repository of a knowledge of tradition, and possessed of a skill in its transmission that I could never hope to understand or master. Whatever the use to which such an image might have been put, however powerfully it may have served the establishment of a romanticized, colonial “other,” it will remain in my experience also an amazing portrait, and one of the most sensitively humane images of a black man ever produced by a European painter.28
“As if into the presence of a living being”—this was certainly one of the overarching themes of Gérôme’s art: painting (and sculpture) poised between the vivifying myth of Pygmalion on the one hand and the objectifying mechanism of the camera on the other. It might also serve as a fitting epigraph for this portrait. Today, we might easily praise it for its apparently “photographic” power—its ability to capture the look of a documented time and place, or to give the sense of a transient moment captured, even in the expression on the old bard’s face. But in fact, the overall effect is quite other than that of a nineteenth-century photograph. That sense of otherness inheres in the brilliance and the subtlety of the interplay of colors across the surface—something no photograph could approach in 1888. In that sense, The Black Bard is like the polychromed plaster model for the marble Corinth (1903): a demonstration of the artist’s Pygmalion-like power to bring us into the living presence of his model at a moment in time when photography was still struggling to achieve a similar effect.29
One of the major themes that runs throughout Said’s book concerns the nineteenth-century development of two distinct, if interrelated, European Orientalisms—one based in England, the other in France.30 That which developed in France, romantic in essence and bound up inextricably with a sense of “what might have been,” was grounded inevitably and inexorably in Napoleon’s ill-fated Egyptian adventure of 1798–99. Gérôme speaks eloquently to exactly that sense in his Oedipus (ca.1863–66), where the French general, relatively small against the vastness of the desert, sits astride his horse addressing the buried and damaged Great Sphinx, whose eyes see across the millennia, whose lips remain sealed, and whose presence embodies the inscrutable blankness of our Orient, neither asking nor answering (at least in the language for which we listen).31 Stripped of the army of savants, whose labors produced, through “a continuous application… of the arts and sciences,”32 the twenty-eight volume Description de l’Égypt (1809–28), Napoleon is dwarfed by the land, the culture, even the distant sky—a perfect illustration of Said’s thesis.
- A comparable and much more well-known image is Diego Velázquez’s portrait of his half-caste slave and studio assistant Juan de Pareja (1650).↵
- For an interestingly ironic case of “turn-about is fair play,” see Spectacular Art, 347, ill. 181. This anonymous albumen print, which captures the photographic likeness of the 1904 marble Corinth (a work that no one could mistake for a real woman), provides us with a likeness that, thanks to the photography’s own limitations, appears absolutely vivid and life-like.↵
- This distinction runs throughout the nineteenth-century section of Said’s analysis. For a concise discussion of this point, see the argument in which the following thumbnail distinction is embedded: “Yet the difference between French and British expertise remains: the former manages an actual conjunction of peoples and territory, whereas the latter deals with a realm of spiritual possibility.” Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978), 244.↵
- Apparently, we are still listening. Although the model is a work by Elihu Vedder rather than Gérôme, the basic conceit of the latter’s Oedipus is given a fully Postmodern articulation in Mark Tansey’s Secret of the Sphinx (Homage to Elihu Vedder) (1984).↵
- Said, 85, 83ff. (1984).↵