Eager to Escape This Theatre: Jean-Léon Gérôme

Andréa Fernandes

At the request of reader Mike, today's "Feel Art Again" features Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), a French painter. Like John William Godward, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Sir Edward Poynter, Gérôme was a painter in the Academic manner and painted scenes of Middle Eastern and Egyptian life. Shown above is his 1893 painting, "Painting Breathes Life Into Sculpture."

1. Jean-Léon Gérôme was a staunch supporter of the academic tradition of painting and was against new trends like Impressionism. He was strongly against the Manet memorial exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1884, writing, "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." Yet the exhibition still went off and, after it concluded, Gérôme admitted "it was not so bad as I thought."

2. Many of Gérôme's paintings are of exotic and foreign lands that he had traveled to over the years. He spent about a year in Italy when he was 19, having traveled there with Paul Delaroche, under whom he was studying. Later, he traveled to Constantinople (1853); Turkey and the Danube (1854); Egypt, Judea, Syria, and the Holy Places (1857); and the Middle East, a trip that included stops in Alexandria, Cairo, Giza, Suez, a safari to Mount Sinai, Petra, and Jerusalem (1868). By the time he traveled to the Middle East, Gérôme had learned Arabic, and was able to act as the leader and translator for his group.

3. Leaving a party in 1861, Gérôme became engaged in a violent exchange of words with an art dealer named Mr. Stevens. The argument escalated into a duel between the two men. While Mr. Stevens was experienced in duels, Gérôme was not, and it was probably only the advice of his doctor to stand sideways that prevented him from suffering any serious injuries. As it was, Mr. Stevens' bullet hit Gérôme's right wrist and lodged in his shoulder.

4. Throughout his career, Gérôme received many honors, including being elected to the Institut de France (on his fifth attempt) and as an honorary member of the British Royal Academy. He was also made an officer in the Legion of Honor; awarded the Grand Order of the Red Eagle, Third Class, by the King Wilhelm I of Prussia; received regularly at the Imperial Court as a guest of Empress Eugénie; and invited to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

5. "I begin to have enough of life," wrote Gérôme to a student on December 31, 1903. "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." Just ten days later, Gérôme was found dead in his atelier in front of a portrait of Rembrandt and near his own painting, "The Truth." In a no-frills service of his own request, Gérôme was laid to rest in Montmarte Cemetery in front of the statue "Sorrow," which he had cast for his son Jean, who had died at age 27 in 1891.

A larger version is available here. Fans should check out Jean-Léon Gérôme's virtual gallery and his galleries on ARC and Orientalist Art, as well as this YouTube video of his work. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.