"...one must simply call them ‘Eunuchs’“ - the French academic painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme

11 May 1824, 190 years ago, the French academic painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme was born in Vesoul in Haute-Saône.
“I hate imitators, people who put works together out of older works, these men are blind unless they are looking with someone else’s eyes, and who produce only the mistakes of the master they draw from. These, one doesn’t even want to talk about; one must simply call them ‘Eunuchs’“ (Jean Leon Gerome)

Jean-Léon Gérôme: "Phryne before the Areopagus“ (1861)*

, politics and photography shook 19th century art to the very foundation. Many painters began to see the steady advance of technical possibilities to eternalise scenes from the life in a moment as a threat to their very raison d'être and vocation. Mainstream art tried to counter this development by composing scenes and adding ideological value with integrating motifs of allegorical idealism. Often from the realm of plain, chauvinistic nationalism beyond bourgeois values rather universal all over Europe and an artistic approach to depict their vision as realistic as possible, if only in terms of tangible imaginability. Imagination played an even greater role in choosing a sujet that was inaccessible for photographers - the realms of history, mythology and religion – or at least difficult to get to, like places abroad and exotic motives that only few could check for their accuracy or even content of truth and had the decided advantage that spectators could excite themselves over other peoples’ barbarism, especially if they were colonial subjects. And here depictions of otherwise repressed sexuality, sexually charged violence and just plain nudity were acceptable if they only took place in a remote setting, but sometimes even that was too close for the audience’s comfort. By depicting racy historical éclats, some caused a very contemporary scandal, even the most established academic artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Jean-Léon Gérôme: "Pollice Verso" (1872)

Against the background of a formal and thorough artistic academic education and undeniable talent, Gérôme soon caught the attention not only of a well-paying audience but that of Emperor Napoleon III as well, circumstances that provided him with ample funds and enough leeway to travel the places and see the sights he would later capture on canvas, romanticised scenes from North Africa, Turkey and Egypt, painted with a full-fledged realistic approach and the usual motifs of the European yearning characterised as Orientalism, picturesque places and folk, baths, slave markets, warriors and the ubiquitous views from the harem. And beyond the image building creation of an antique gladiatorial fight, showing the now famous but historically unrecorded sight of the crowd of spectators giving the thumbs down gesture that recently had inspired Ridley Scott to his colourful “Gladiator” flick, Gérôme caused offence twice by painting ladies of the demi monde like the Bohémien modern artists he despised and fought, only that his models were already dead for 2.500 years, the illustrious hetairai Phryne and Aspasia. Gérôme was eventually forgiven and remained one of the most influential academic painters and sculptors of the 19th century. 

Jean-Léon Gérôme: "Harem Pool" (1876)

* Depicted above is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Phryne before the Areopagus“ (1861) showing a famous scene from the life of the 4th century BCE hetaira (courtesan) Mnesarete, nicknamed Phryne, the toad: “Atheneaus writes that she was prosecuted for a capital charge and defended by the orator Hypereides, who was one of her lovers. Athenaeus does not specify the nature of the charge, but Pseudo-Plutarch writes that she was accused of impiety.The speech for the prosecution was written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus according to Diodorus Periegetes. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, Hypereides removed Phryne's robe and bared her breasts before the judges to arouse their pity. Her beauty instilled the judges with a superstitious fear, who could not bring themselves to condemn "a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite" to death. They decided to acquit her out of pity.” (Wikipedia)

A monographic show of his remarkable work can be found on:


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