Art review: ‘The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme’ @ J. Paul Getty Museum

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If you liked ‘Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’ at the movie theater, you’ll love ‘The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme’ at the J. Paul Getty Museum. More than a century ago, Gérôme helped to invent the genre of sword-and-sandal epic, later peddled in the movies by everyone from Steve Reeves to Jake Gyllenhaal. Paint and canvas were the French artist’s tools of choice, since the machinery of cinema did not yet exist in 1870s Paris.

I realize this may not be much of a recommendation for the Getty show, given the lackluster recent reception of ‘Prince of Persia’ among critics and at the box office. But there are other reasons to see it. Not least is its rarity. There hasn’t been a sizable survey of the academic painter, who was hugely successful during his lifetime, since 1972 -- the centennial, in fact, of his sword-and-sandal invention.


Nor is Gérôme an artist whose output dwelt exclusively, or even primarily, on gladiatorial combat in ancient lands. He also painted portraits, melodramas and life in Arab souks. His picture of a howling, toga- and tunic-clad mob happily shrieking for blood in the arena is certainly among his most famous works. (The 1872 painting’s title, ‘Pollice Verso,’ translates as ‘Thumbs Down.’) But the subject was in fact somewhat unusual for him.

His painterly thrills are also in short supply. An artist striving for establishment success in 19th century Paris would get a big, sudden career boost if he (and always he) won the Prix de Rome, a fierce competition for a scholarship to Italy. There he could learn by copying the accumulated masterpieces of antiquity and the Renaissance. But Gérôme didn’t win it. He didn’t even get to the finals. In the eyes of the Simon Cowells and Paula Abduls of France’s Royal Academy, his figure drawing was inadequate.

Still, Gérôme stands at a kind of crossroads in the modern world. He was there at the dawn of popular culture. His strange art records the conflicted emergence of an equally strange new world.

Born in a small town near the Swiss and German borders in 1824, Gérôme went to Paris at the impressionable age of 16 for apprenticeship in the studio of Paul Delaroche, a successful history painter. He worked with him for the next four years.

Delaroche was the epitome of establishment success. He came from wealth. He snagged an official commission from the School of Fine Arts to paint a huge mural depicting history’s greatest artists. His father-in-law even ran the French Academy in Rome.

Compared to him, Gérôme was a pleasant also-ran -- a talented but provincial striver who might only got so far. What happened, though, was unexpected. Gérôme went around the establishment gate-keepers, taking another avenue that was newly opening. He went directly to the public, which was emerging as a force in bourgeois France.

A picture such as ‘Thumbs Down,’ with its heroic Roman (and romantic) gladiator standing on the neck of a fallen competitor, even describes the situation. Think of the victorious gladiator as Gérôme’s veiled self-portrait -- a powerful, prodigiously gifted fellow, but not a member of the establishment classes. He does his job to mighty effect, winning the fight.

Finally, though, he must throw in his lot with the judgment of the crowd. The gladiator-cum-Gérôme submits to whatever the vocal audience might want.

Some within the ranks of the French Academy might look at ‘Thumbs Down’ and see the vanquished gladiator’s pose as borrowed from Caravaggio’s St. Paul, sprawled on the ground with arms thrown out as he’s blown back by the sudden revelation of truth. Gérôme even puts us down there in the ring with him, not up with the roaring crowd in the arena’s bleachers. Any distinction between ‘the people’ and ‘the mob’ is unclear, but we’re at their mercy.

Rather than being based on a video game, as ‘Prince of Persia’ was, Gérôme’s scene of gladiatorial blood-letting may have been inspired by a hugely popular novel. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ is replete with scenes of savage mortal theater played out before the slobbering throng.

A movie and a TV miniseries have also been based on the Pompeii book. And an earlier Bulwer-Lytton novel opened with the immortal line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ -- now often erroneously attributed to Snoopy. Gérôme wasn’t exactly the Jerry Bruckheimer of his day, but not by accident was the last big Gérôme exhibition organized in 1972 -- in the immediate aftermath of Warhol, Ruscha and the Pop art juggernaut. Today we’re in the big-ticket wake of Shepard Fairey and Damien Hirst.

How else was Gérôme caught up in popular culture? Well, if Delaroche had a helpful father-in-law, so did he: Gérôme married the daughter of Adolphe Goupil, who wasn’t just an art dealer but a pioneer in mass-marketing art reproductions. That’s how ‘Thumbs Down’ got so famous. In the process the painting developed an unprecedented aura: It became ‘the original,’ whence all those popular color reproductions came.

A wall text at the start of the Getty exhibition says that Gérôme’s reputation has been ‘tarnished by his alleged commercialism.’ (I’d quibble with the word ‘alleged.’) What really tarnished it, though, is not an engagement with commerce but a disengagement with art’s possibilities.

Gérôme valued art only for its power as illusion. He saw the 1839 invention of the camera as a way to make art’s illusions more convincing. His painting ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’ even shows an artist whose sculpture of a woman comes to life, engaging him in an embrace.
Or, take ‘The Cock Fight’ (1847), smoothly finished in pale colors. Before a fountain decorated with a ruined Sphinx, a couple of nearly naked young Greeks watch an acutely observed pair of battling roosters. In this strange picture some cheesecake and some beefcake, duly derived from ancient sculpture, are set out to ponder the enigma of life’s struggle.

The critic Charles Baudelaire called out Gérôme on this populist merger of illusion and history. The raw materialism of paint was its own reward, Baudelaire insisted. From Manet to Cézanne, every artist we revere today was on the other side of Gérôme’s fight. By now the crowd’s thumbs are all pointing the other way, which tempts us to cast Gérôme as an underdog. But he didn’t have a clue. The Getty show helps us see why.

-- Christopher Knight

‘The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme,’ J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, (310) 440-7300, through Sept. 12. Closed Mondays.


Art, race and changing tastes: The Gerome show at the Getty