Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme

The J. Paul Getty Museum is the first of three venues to present The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (June 15-September 12, 2010). This much-anticipated special exhibition, the first of its kind in nearly 40 years, features 99 works by the French artist (1824-1904) and important contemporaries. In light of recent scholarship, the show reconsiders the life and oeuvre of the academic painter and sculptor whose brilliant career was eclipsed by the development of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and the Modernist avant-garde. In Los Angeles, California, the installation is organized thematically and chronologically by Mary Morton, Curator and Head of the Department of French Paintings at the National Gallery of Art and Scott Allen, the Getty's Assistant Curator of Paintings.
Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904). The Snake Charmer (ca. 1870). Oil on canvas. 83.4 x 122.1 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

Gérôme and Painting
During the early 1840s, Jean-Léon Gérôme excelled at the atelier (studio) of noted Parisian painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). He continued his education with his mentor in Italy. After his return to France, Gérôme attended the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. He competed unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome in 1846, having been disqualified in the final round because of inadequate figure-drawing skills. This disappointment profoundly influenced the artist's perpetual preoccupation with painting the perfect nude.
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827-1875). Portrait of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1872-73). Marble. H. 61 cm. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Despite the setback, the indefatigable Gérôme's The Cockfight (1847), a genre scene of adolescent sexuality set in a classical landscape, was well-received at that year's Salon. The recognition bolstered the artist's ambitions as a history painter throughout most of the next decade. He was foiled once again when the critics' disliked his monumental allegorical The Age of Augustus (1855), an official commission for French Emperor Napoleon III (r. 1851-70).

The disillusioned Gérôme then turned his attentions to small-scale historical and Orientalist compositions. The Death of Caesar (1867) was acknowledged for the artist's meticulous rendering of the immense Roman Senate's archaeological details as well as its portrayal of the dramatic events that unfolded following the ruler's cold and calculated assassination. The inventive imagery of Gérôme's subsequent The Snake Charmer (ca. 1870) was due, in part, to his 1853 trip to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). There he derived inspiration from everyday life in the East to paint exotic scenes with the realistic clarity of photography, a new medium he greatly admired.
Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904). The Death of Caesar (1867). Oil on canvas. 85.5 x 145.5 cm. Walters Art Museum.

The Lure of Sculpture
Always interested in antique art, Gérôme devoted much of his later career to sculpture, frequently cross-referencing his paintings and statues. The artist premiered his first bronze sculpture, a gladiator trampling upon his victim, at the Universal Exposition of 1878.

The current exhibition displays 10 of Gérôme's works in bronze, marble, ivory and mixed media. It also fittingly includes the painter's famous oil on canvas Pygmalion and Galatea (1890), in which he retells the ancient Roman myth about a sculptor who fell in love with his own creation brought to life by a goddess.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Pygmalion and Galatea (ca. 1890). Oil on canvas. 88.9 x 68.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

After the J. Paul Getty Museum, "The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme" travels to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris (October 18, 2010-January 23, 2011) and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid (March 22- June 12, 2011).

Morton, Mary and Scott Allen (eds.), et al. Rediscovering Gérôme. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.