Thursday, 20 March 2014

Orientalism and Jean-Leon Gerome

Work In Progress

If you have been following this blog recently you will know that I am currently engaged in writing a novel about Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign

 Gerome - Napoleon in Egypt, 1867

I also explained in an earlier posting that I was looking at paintings and engravings of the period in order to gain some insight into the Egypt of 1798

In that context, I would like this time to show you something of the work of Jean-Leon Gerome, a French painter and sculptor who died in 1904

Un Combat de Coqs, 1846

Gerome was an academic painter who studied under Paul Delaroche and at the Ecoles des Beaux Arts in Paris. He went on to become a very successful painter and sculptor, highly regarded by his contemporaries 

Today his work is unfashionable, not least because he immediately preceded the Impressionists who dramatically transformed our notions of art

Gerome was also a major sculptor whose works have a scale and apparent realism that is very much of its period


He was, however, also experimental and often used tinted marble, bronze and ivory, inlaid with precious stones

Today his painted statues appear very odd to us but this is exactly how Greek statues from antiquity would have been finished. The polished white marble that we naturally associate with Greek sculpture is entirely wrong

Corinthe (Painted plaster) -1903

Gerome - like many artists even today - was assiduous at promoting himself in a highly competitive market, to the extent that he painted many portraits of himself in his studio, thereby  demonstrating his skills as both painter in oils and monumental sculptor

La Fin de la Seance, 1886

What interests me, however, is his subject matter and here we have to be very careful, not least because his representation of the Orient is highly slanted

Anyone who has read  Edward Said's book Orientalism (1978) will know that representations of the Orient (and in my case, Egypt) are largely for Western consumption and are an integral aspect (albeit implicit) of Western colonialism

Marche D'Esclaves, 1866

These representations of the 'Orient' by Gerome are also hugely sexist - 'interpretations' of the exotic 'East' in which women are not only objects of male voyeurism but victims of absolute male domination

This is phallocentrism gone mad!

Grande Piscine de Brousse, 1885

The almost photographic 'realism' of these large paintings also gives them a bogus historical veracity and yet, when all is said and done, they are merely excuses to stare at naked women - predominantly white naked women

It is no accident that the central nude here is accompanied by a black servant, thereby contrasting the woman's delicate white skin with the black skin of the slave whose face we cannot (and should not) see

Moreover, the cothurni both women are wearing is an 'historical' detail merely designed to give the picture some kind of historical authenticity and at the same time give the white woman's hips an alluring tilt

Phyrne Devant L'Areopage, (Detail|)1861

Sometimes the sexism is even more blatant

The above picture, for example, shows Phryne being revealed ('exposed' would be a better word) before the Council of Areopagus - the ancient governing body of Athens

It is not difficult to see this as a a bunch of old men ogling a pretty young woman, even if one or two of the elderly politicians are making token protestations of horror or embarrassment!

L'Interieur Grec, 1850

Edward Said makes the point in Orientalism that these representations of the Orient invariably reveal deep-seated notions of Western dominance, power and control

This is particularly true of Egypt over whom the French and the British had fought for absolute control for hundreds of years

Napoleon et Oedipe

Napoleon himself justified his intervention in Egypt (1798-1801) as France's way of 'liberating' the Egyptians from Turkish (more precisely, Marmeluke) despotism

His real motive was to control routes to India and thereby scupper valuable British sea trade with India and beyond

Gerome first visited Egypt in 1856. There followed many orientalist paintings depicting Arab religion, genre scenes and North African landscapes

Le Marchand de Tapis au Caire, 1887

While I do not doubt that his genre paintings are the result of close observation, there is something curiously unconvincing about them

While beautifully painted the colours are just a bit too bright and the groupings somewhat 'staged'. This is a colourful, 'exotic' Orient of the imagination

Flaubert had visited Egypt seven years earlier and although he too sometimes romanticised Egypt he also described the squalor and abject poverty of the country

When Napoleon and his army occupied Egypt in 1798 they were horrified at the poverty, corruption and sheer squalor of ' this once great civilisation'

Charmeur de Serpents, 1880

It should be added here, perhaps, that there is often something prurient about Gerome's choice of subject matter

The naked child, closely observed by an all male audience, gives one an uneasy feeling that this painting is not just a moment in a snake charmer's performance. It is, for example, riddled with phallic symbols - not least the rearing head of the snake itself

Perhaps I am reading to much into this painting but there is definitely something 'uncomfortable' about it

Le Roi Candaule, 1859

While these paintings by Jean-Leon Gerome, therefore, are fascinating for historians and novelists alike, we clearly need to use them with caution and to recognise the hidden agenda (cultural hegemony) that is embedded deep within them

Mike Healey 

The illustrations for the above article are taken from Gerome 1824-1904, published by Connaisance des Arts in 2010

1 comment:

shennong said...

Great post, thanks!!