Gérôme painting "Thirst - Tigress and Cubs"
Jean-Léon Gérôme was born in Vesoul (a town in the modern French department of Haute-Saône, not far from Besançon and the border with Switzerland) and was the first son of Pierre Gérôme, a goldsmith, and his wife Claude Françoise Mélanie Vuillemot, a merchant's daughter. At school in Vesoul he had much academic success from an early age, in his final year receiving first prize in chemistry, an honourable mention in physics and another prize in oil painting, having commenced painting lessons when aged 14 after five years of drawing classes. His drawing master was Claude-Basile Cariage, a strict task master in the academic methods who is thought to have once worked in the atelier of either J B Regnault or of Ingres.
His schooling complete, in 1840 at the age of 16, he set out for Paris with a letter of introduction to Paul Delaroche who was then at the height of his fame. Delaroche's style, which he naturally communicated to his students, was a fusion of the academic Neo-classical school and the dramatic subject matter of the romantics in which the universal themes of the former were replaced with the personal psychological studies typical of the latter, resulting in, what might be termed, a historical genre painting style. Delaroche also recommended the study of Phidias (i.e. casts after the friezes and pediments of the Parthenon) and, at that time, he had just completed his most famous work - the fresco in the Hemicycle of Fine Arts in the École des Beaux-Arts - the concept of which clearly owes a lot on Raphael's Vatican frescoes.
The atelier (studio) routine was rigorous, with five hours each morning spent drawing from either a cast or model, a week being spent on each drawing, and the afternoons spent on personal studies, perhaps sketching in the streets or countryside or copying old masters in the Louvre. Gérôme also took supplementary courses at the École itself, possibly in anatomy or perspective. He was popular with his fellow students at the atelier and, since the income from his father made him relatively well off, his various accommodations at this time in Paris always had an open door. Indeed he often cut his own food rations dangerously to keep his friends fed.
Encouraged by Delaroche, he offered a drawing to the Magasin Pittoresque and had it accepted. Thereafter he became a regular contributor. He supplemented his allowance further by, together with his friends, mass-producing sets of 'stations of the cross' to be sold in the religious shops.
In his third year of studies, returning from a vacation in Vesoul, he learned of the closure of Delaroche's atelier: Delaroche was in depression following the death of his wife, Louise, the daughter of Horace Vernet, and also that of one of his students following a duelling incident. Gérôme found his teacher setting off for Rome and asked to accompany him. He did so together with E-J Damery, who had recently won the Prix de Rome, and an English artist from the atelier, Eyre Crowe. He was later to refer to his year in Rome as the happiest and best time of his life.
In Italy, he spent much time studying the antiquities, which formed the basis for many of his later motifs, and it was in the Naples museum that he encountered the famous gladiatoral armour from Pompeii that was to inspire his gladiatorial scenes. However, his stay in Italy was cut short by a bout of typhoid fever and his mother had to travel from Vesoul to nurse him.
Returning to Paris in the autumn of 1844, he entered the atelier of the famous Swiss painter and teacher Charles Gleyre (1806-1874) who had more or less taken over from Delaroche. He was a popular teacher and an excellent and erudite draughtsman, with a technique in oils considered to be one of the most secure at the time - this when oil paint was not yet supplied in tubes and a careful scientific mixing was required to avoid rapid deterioration of the pigments over time. Amongst his many later famous students, to whom he had obviously imparted his special techniques, were Monet, Renoir, Bazille and Whistler. Besides the usual drawing or painting from a model or cast, Gleyre also taught composition - a rare occurrence in an atelier. Remembering his own poverty as a student, he never charged attendance fees at his classes.
Gleyre's traditional empathy with Phidias and Raphael was at a time when the Realist movement was developing and his own compositions might have seemed somewhat old-fashioned, however his students reacted inventively, keeping their master's classical figures and settings with their idealized backgrounds, but instead of employing elements of the grand manner to paint historical, biblical or mythological subjects, they painted antique genre scenes. His students became known as the Pompeïstes or Neo-grecs and Gérôme - doubtlessly due to the learned and sophisticated wit of his compositions together with their freshness and accuracy - became known as the leader of this small group.
However, in addition to Gleyre's attention to correct and accurate settings in his compositions which seemed to either parallel or influence those of Gérôme, he also had an enthusiasm for the Near East - an area which was ultimately to become Gérôme's destiny.
When Delaroche returned to Paris from Rome, summoned to work on an important commission, Gérôme left Gleyre's studio to become his assistant and he stayed for almost a year. Delaroche encouraged him to prepare paintings for the Salon and he was soon commissioned to paint a reproduction for the Queen. For this he was given a studio in the Louvre. It was to be the first of a long series of official commissions. He also worked on "The Cock Fight", a large canvas combining nude studies with animals, which he intended for the Salon of 1847. After much lobbying, he succeeded in obtaining an unobtrusive location for it there. Fortunately, however, it was noticed and praised by the well-known poet and critic Théophile Gautier - a man who was later to support Gérôme throughout most of his career. His review made Gérôme famous and effectively launched his career.
Successive French governments continuously supported artists by commissions of various sorts, and that of the Second Republic was no exception, awarding many to Gérôme on an ongoing basis. A tireless worker, he rose at dawn, worked while there was good light throughout the day and only indulged in social amusements at night. Greater fame followed these commissions and his prices gradually increased until, by 1860, the state found that he had become too expensive. This was by then no hardship for him enabling him to concentrate on more adventurous subjects for the Salons. These paintings showed great originality, merging his old-fashioned classical interests with the contemporary objectivity of Realism, enthusiasm for which encouraged him to record events on his travels for later incorporation into his paintings which might otherwise have been ignored.
Having got a taste for oriental travel after visiting Turkey in 1855 to make studies for a large official commission , he was soon to visit Egypt in preparation for the Salon of 1857 in which his first Egyptian genre paintings were shown. Gautier saw in them a true and fresh view of the Near East. The variety of subjects and themes he presented were astonishing and this was to mark the start of his career as an Orientalist or a peintre ethnographique.
At the end of 1861 Gérôme planned an eight month visit to Egypt and the Near East with the intention, following his return, of marrying the daughter of Adolphe Goupil, his dealer. But his plans were endangered by a duel. An exchange of violent words with a certain Mr Stevens, an art dealer, (possibly over a woman) upon leaving a party led to the challenge. He had never duelled before and his opponent was experienced. Apparently his doctor, Dr Lorrain, arrrived just in time to advise him to stand sideways. This must have saved him, since the bullet of his adversary hit his right wrist en route to lodging in his shoulder. Not to be deterred, however, Gérôme set off for Egypt with his arm still in a sling. In the same trip he also visited Judea, Syria and the Holy Places. Upon his return he married Marie Goupil (1842-1912) as originally planned.
Goupil was a famous international art dealer with offices in Berlin, Brussels, London and New York as well as two shops in Paris. Starting in 1827 as Goupil and Ritter, they first sold only prints, but by 1847 it was selling modern paintings in its shop in the Rue de Montmartre. The Gérômes had four daughters and one son, Jean, who, after attempting a career as a painter, died of consumption in 1891 at the age of 27. The daughters all married prominent men and gave him many grandchildren. In spite of this, after Adolphe Goupil's death in 1884, the firm became Boussod, Valadon and Company, liquidating in 1917, the New York branch having been sold much earlier to the agent Knoedler.
For his marriage, Gérôme bought a house at 6, Rue de Brussels, near the Boulevard de Clichy and opposite the Folies Bergere, later extending it right through the block to the boulevard, building a grand house with courtyard, stables, a large sculpture studio on the ground floor and a large painting studio with a huge atelier window on the top floor.
After many complaints about the selection (or rather rejection) of many good artists from the Salons and the Emperor himself having ordered the opening of the parallel exhibition - the Salon des Refusés - in 1863 there came an imperial decree separating the administration of the École des Beaux-Arts and the Salon from the academicians of the Institute de France, putting them under separate control. A new curriculum was inaugurated for the École and three painting ateliers were founded. Gérôme was appointed as professor of one which opened in 1864. It had 16 students, most presumably from his own independent atelier which he had started between 1860 and 1862.
In January 1868, entrusting his students to a good friend, he set off upon a three-and-a-half month excursion to the Middle East in the company of 8 other friends, including the young photographer Albert Goupil. By this time he had learned Arabic and was a seasoned traveller as well as a lively and convivial companion. Leaving from Marseilles, they disembarked at Alexandria and journeyed up the Nile to Cairo and Giza, taking photographs and sketching all the while. Thence by train to Suez and a safari to Mount Sinai via the east bank of the Dead Sea, then ever onwards across the peninsula of Aquaba to Petra and finally to Jerusalem. Here he met the, by then, equally famous American painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), before leaving the group and heading home by ship from Jaffa to Marseilles with Albert Goupil. Returning to his studio in Paris, Gérôme developed a repertoire of "standard" pictures - single models posed with costumes and properties he had collected on his travels - all painted with meticulous care: Arabs, Arnauts, Almehs, merchants, Bashi-Bazouks, butcher boys - sitting, smoking, holding guns, tending dogs, or just standing there - and incorporating his props of rifles, side arms, hookas, vases, etc.
By the time the war started in 1870, Gérôme was at the height of his career: regularly a guest of the Empress at the Imperial Court at Compiègne; he was a professor at the École; elected a member of the Imperial Institute in 1865; promoted from a knight to an officer in the Legion of Honour in 1867; elected an honorary member of the British Royal Academy in 1869; and awarded a decoration, the Grand Order of the Red Eagle, Third Class, by the King of Prussia. In the autumn of 1869 he was invited to be among the distinguished group of French artistic and literary élite to see the opening of the Suez Canal.
When the war started the Gérôme family was already in their country home in Bougival, just outside Paris, where they had all their valuable possessions transferred. He worked there until he thought that the Germans were getting too close then took his wife and children to England, returning himself to aid with the defense of Paris. He didn't remain there long, however, and soon returned to London and his family, where he stayed until the summer of 1871, accepting the hospitality of Eyre Crowe. He had little knowledge of the English language himself and probably re-introduced himself to Lord Leighton, who spoke excellent French, and to Sir Edward Poynter, who had also studied with Gleyre in Paris. It was in London that he started his series of oriental bath scenes - usually incorporating two or more nudes in imagined baths - fantasy rooms full of coloured tiles, fountains and steam penetrated by light beams.
Soon after the siege of Paris finished in June 1871, the family returned to their home which had only suffered minor damage. Although he had not requested it, the home in Bougival had also been given special protection by the invading Prussians, either because of his fame or his being a knight in a Prussian order. He resumed his teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts which had earlier been abolished by the Commune. He also commenced re-building his professional reputation which had been somewhat damaged by his association with the fallen empire. He sent no exhibits to the Salon until 1874, in which the jury awarded him his second Gold Medal for three genre pieces set in the baroque era . Some critics objected that gold medals were not for genre painters. Hearing this while in Holland, he telegraphed home that he would not accept the prize. However they would not withdraw it, so he gave the medal, worth about 4000 francs in gold, to a student fund at the École.
Throughout this period he continued to travel: Turkey in the winter of 1871; Spain and Algiers in 1873; Holland in 1874 (to study Frans Hals); Turkey again in 1879; Egypt in 1880; perhaps to Greece in 1881; London in 1888; Sicily in 1890 (on the Duc d'Aumale's yacht); and Italy in 1889 (with François Flameng and Victor Clairin). Despite his constant travel and a series of illnesses - the dysentery acquired much earlier in Algiers recurring several times - he never ceased from his rigorous work habits. Twice a week he rode horseback across Paris to his classes at the École, looking so much like a cavalry officer that he was often salluted on the way. Indeed he became one of the major personalities of his time, being constantly in the newspapers.
Gérôme made his public debut as a sculptor at the Paris International Exhibition of 1878 . His friend Frémiet had encouraged him in this direction and gave him instruction in the techniques. His exhibit was an impressive life-size bronze group, The Gladiators, based on the central figures of his painting Pollice Verso. He had been making plaster models to paint from for some time and his interest in the structure of the human body found a natural expression in this medium. With Anacreon, Cupid and the Infant Bacchus, he returned to a theme dear to the Neo-grecs. At the Salon of 1887 he exhibited his marble statue Omphale, a lifesize depiction of the Lydian queen watching the enslaved Hercules perform one of his assigned labours. He was highly satisfied with this work and had several photographs taken of the model posing alongside the plaster in his studio - the likeness was considered to be astounding. The government offered to buy it, but he turned them down saying that "In offering to buy my statue ... you have given me the most wonderful award for my effort". He encouraged them to save their money to award to other less prosperous sculptors whose only income could be from official patronage. His next sculptured masterpiece, Tanagra of 1890, was actually bought by the government for 10,000 francs but only with the proviso that the money should not come from the state sculpture fund.
Not particularly liking portraiture, he did however produce a series of portraits of his friends in the 1890's which was supplemented by a splendid series of commisioned busts in marble and bronze, the climax of which was a splendid polychromed Sarah Bernhardt now in the Musée d'Orsay.
Between 1884 and 1891, Gérôme's circle and family suffered from a high number of deaths, no doubt due in part to recent 'flu epidemics during the severe winters. Indeed he was seriously afflicted himself, although making a full recovery. His father died aged 84. In the same year his young brother-in-law Albert Goupil died, closely followed by his father, Adolphe, thus extinguishing the male line of the family. Other deaths followed including his closes friends, the painters Paul Baudry and Gustave Boulanger. However, whether ill or in mourning, Gérome returned to work whenever he could, seeking consolation in his labours. He was to survive although his output naturally decreased during these years.
During the latter part of his life Gérôme was a vehement opponent of the Impressionist movement in painting. He caused a scandal over his opposition to the Caillebotte bequest to the state where he encouraged the Institute to write a letter to the Minister of Public Instruction protesting the exhibition of the large collection of Impressionist works in the Luxembourg Gallery - to no avail however - the collection was ultimately to become the foundation of the Musée d'Orsay collection. He also organised a public demonstration in his atelier and gave interviews to reporters. From the L'Éclair journal:
"The Institute cannot remain still before such a scandal ... How can the government dare welcome such a collection of inanities into a museum? Why, have you seen the collection? The state the ward of such junk! The Luxembourg Museum is a school. What lessons are our young artists going to receive there from now on? They'll all start to do Impressionism! Ah! these people believe they are painting nature, nature so admirable in all its manifestations! What pretension! Nature is not for them! This Monet, do you remember his cathedrals? And that man used to know how to paint! Yes, I've seen good things by him, but now!"
Similarly he objected to the Manet memorial exhibition at the École in 1884. It was not just that Manet had never studied or taught there, but because he had "chosen to be the apostle of decadent fashion, the art of the fragment. I, for my part, was chosen by the state to teach the grammar of art to young students. ... Consequently I do not think it right to offer them as a model the extremely arbitrary and sensational work of a man, who, although gifted with rare qualities, did not develop them." Despite Gérôme's position, his power was only that of his reputation and he held no administrative authority - the Manet exhibition went ahead. However, after the opening which he did in fact attend, Gérôme came out telling everyone it was "not so bad as I thought" - apparently the highest praise he ever gave anyone!
On the 31st December 1903, Gérôme wrote to his student and former assistant Aublet, "I begin to have enough of life. I've seen too much misery and misfortune in the lives of others. I still see it every day, and I'm getting eager to escape this theatre." He was to live just ten more days and perhaps knew that his heart was weakening. Yet, ever energetic, he still planned another trip to Monte Carlo. On the 9th of January he had lunch with his brother-in-law Léon Cléry and the widow of the painter Alfred Stevens, afterwards showing them round his studio. In the evening he dined with friends from the Institute. However the next morning, the maid found him dead in the little room next to his atelier, slumped in front of a portrait of Rembrandt and at the foot of his own painting The Truth.
As a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, he was entitled to a full military funeral, but he had already requested just a simple service without even flowers. Nevertheless there was a large attendance at a Requiem Mass held in his memory which included the President of the Senate, the Director of Fine Arts, the former President of the Republic, the mayor of Vesoul and many painters and writers - he had been a very popular figure and good friend to many. He was buried in the Montmartre Cemetary in front of the statue of Sorrow he had cast in memory of his son Jean.
[Main ref: "Jean-Léon Gérôme - His Life, His Work 1824-1904", Gerald M Ackerman, ACR Edition, 1997]