Beyond the surfaces of a glittering imperialist

Jean-Léon Gérôme is by all accounts the poster boy of Orientalism.

During the second half of the 19th century, the French painter found critical and commercial success with his meticulously detailed, exquisitely decorated scenes of the near East, most notably Turkey and Egypt. He appealed to popular hunger for what was then typically called “ethnographic” images: scientific-seeming studies of a foreign culture’s lifestyle, costumes and more.

His works were not just exhibited widely but reproduced shamelessly, the form of collectible etchings, lithographs and photographs, large and small. And he shared his techniques with students. A longtime professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Gérôme paved the way for dozens of so-called Orientalist painters to follow.

So when the field of Orientalism came under attack, Gérôme was directly in the line of fire. The poster boy became the whipping boy.

This happened in art history circles most dramatically with the triumph of the first wave of Impressionists, who in their quest for formal innovation rejected Gérôme as academic, reactionary and hopelessly passé.


And his reputation sank even further in 1978, when Edward Said published the enormously influential book “Orientalism.” The book makes a compelling case that Western representations of the East (so often cast as exotic, erotic and uncivilized) are complicit in a larger effort at political domination. In short, Said wrote, these images are a form of imperialism.

Even though Said did not discuss Gérôme in the book, he used the artist’s 1880 painting “The Snake Charmer” on its cover. And where Said left off, in 1983 art historian Linda Nochlin picked up, showing in brilliant detail how “The Snake Charmer” functions, in her words, as “a visual document of 19th-century colonialist ideology.”

Together this approach has been so powerful and pervasive—required reading for so many college and graduate students—that it’s been difficult to see Gérôme through any other lens.

This makes the fact that the Getty is mounting a major survey of the artist, “The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme,” June 15 to September 12, that much more remarkable. The Getty is the first stop for the show, co-organized with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. After Paris, it goes to the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

Scott Allan and Mary Morton, who curated the Getty’s version of the show, call it the first major survey of Gérôme’s work in over 30 years. The last was organized in the early 1970s by Gerald Ackerman, whom they credit with nearly single-handedly keeping Gérôme scholarship alive in the interim.

Both curators admit that that their initial conversations about bringing the show to the Getty raised eyebrows of colleagues and superiors.

“For many scholars Gérôme represented all that was abhorrent and insidious about Orientalism,” says Allan. “And it’s all the more insidious because he was so talented a craftsman, so meticulous, not just recycling the stereotypes of other painters.”

“His images are so powerful they slip into your memory. What people who hate him really hate about him is the way his images stick in the imagination,” says Morton.

To encourage scholarship in the field, Morton and Allan commissioned a number of academic essays under the title “Reconsidering Gérôme,” a book out this month.

The Getty curators also contributed to the Musée d’Orsay’s massive exhibition catalogue, published in an English and French edition. It addresses topics ranging from the artist’s travels to his relationship with photography and film. Some entries deal with the Orientalist pictures, others focus on his grand “history” paintings or even his sculptures, which are also part of the exhibition.

Between the two books, a new Gérôme just might rise from the dead. Or new Gérômes plural. For it takes many scholars with many strategies to complicate, if not fully counter, a critique as powerful as Said’s and Nochlin’s.

One technique--a classic strategy for re-evaluating an artist hopelessly out of fashion—involves putting lesser-known work in the spotlight to get us to see the artist anew. One example: Gérôme’s moody and perplexing 1849 painting “Michelangelo Showing a Student the Belvedere Torso.” In “Groping the Antique,” his essay in “Reconsidering Gérôme,” Allan Doyle explores the work’s homoerotic dynamics and teacher-student relationship.

Another technique is to embrace or celebrate the shortcomings of the artist, as Guy Cogeval, head of the Musée d’Orsay, cleverly does in his catalogue essay. While admitting that “we are left aghast” at the artist’s “fatalism and sadistic voyeurism,” he goes on to suggest that his “poor taste delights us,” like the super-campy work of Pierre and Gilles or Jeff Koons.

But the new Gérôme scholarship also addresses the Orientalist attacks more directly, arguing that his paintings are more, in the words of independent curator Peter Benson Miller, than “agents in a vast European conspiracy to enslave, stereotype and exploit the Orient.”

Several essays emphasize the breadth and depth of Gérôme’s travels, reminding us that his images are never pure fantasy. No armchair voyeur, he visited Egypt at least six times between 1856 and 1880, spending eight months there on his first trip.

Miller’s essay on “ethnographic realism” in “Reconsidering Gérôme” also attempts to show that Gérôme’s images were more than outdated “escapist fantasies.” Yes, Miller acknowledged when reached by phone, the artist embodied some common prejudices of his own place and time.

“But he was also really interested in the places where he travelled,” Miller says. “And his pencil studies done in Egypt in the mid 1850s are some of the most sensitive portraits we have by French painters in the Orient.”

In her essay in the same book, Sydney-based art historian Mary Roberts focuses on the artist’s 1875 journey to Istanbul and his connection to the Ottoman sultan’s art collection. Through archival research, Roberts ascertained that that Gérôme played a role in placing 29 paintings from his French art dealer (and father-in-law) Adolphe Goupil in the Ottoman palace’s art collection, including at least two of his own works.

Today this sort of boomerang collecting continues, as museums in Turkey and some Persian Gulf countries are building their own Orientalist collections, and auctions of Orientalist pictures are now taking places in Dubai, not just the traditional market centers of Paris and London. (Most recently, on May 13, Bonhams sold some $1.6 million worth of Orientalist material at the Royal Mirage Hotel in Dubai.)

Such a byzantine history of collecting, Roberts says, makes the “West versus East divide seem too simple,” raising “many complicated and nuanced questions about cultural exchange.”

It also raises another, perhaps cruder, question: Can a painting still be considered racist if members of the race depicted apparently take pride in it?

The Getty curators hope that exhibition visitors are willing to entertain these kinds of questions: questions about the biases of artist and viewer both.

“The art’s that most worth looking at can accommodate radically different perspectives,” says Allan. “To have the debate and discussion is more important than reaching conclusions.”

Take for example an image in the show: the 1862 “A Turkish Butcher Boy.” The painting shows a young man leaning against a wall, with a long pipe in one hand and a knife tucked into his waistband. The severed heads of goats and sheep are scattered at his feet.

Some of Gérôme’s earliest critics saw the boy as a study in the savage decadence of the East, with Earl Shinn pointing out “the drop of blood in the foreground dwelt on by Gérôme as if a jewel.”

The way Morton sees it, “this little, pristinely gorgeous painting is not about the boy being barbaric--he’s just leaning up against the wall looking sort of stoned,” she says. “The idea that he’s barbaric is people projecting their own responses.”

Morton left the Getty recently to become curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art, where she is preparing a big Gauguin show, and says she finds “striking similarities” between these two artist-voyagers. “They are both obsessed with exotic cultures,” although, she says, she finds Gérôme “much less exploitative.”

Allan describes the artist’s work as something of a spectrum. On the one end are images—like his studies of mosques—that seem perfectly respectful. On the other end the there are racially charged, sexually questionable hot-button paintings like the 1871 “For Sale (The Slave Market).”

The painting shows six women sitting or standing along a shopkeeper’s wall, lined up like so many house wares for sale. The women, who range in skin color from very pale to very dark, share the same blank expression and lax or slumped posture.

Allan calls the painting “a spectacle of degradation and titillation—a hard image to take but good to show for that reason.”

Still, he cautions against assuming that Gérôme would condone this scene. “When Gérôme shows a row of semi-clad slave girls up for sale, is he perpetuating racist imagery?” asks Allan. “Or could he be condemning the scene as barbaric? Some commentators at the time read it that way.”

What makes these questions even more vexing, Allan says, is the sheer visual power of the painting. “The subject matter is quite disturbing, but as a painting it’s one of his most beautiful, extraordinary works.”

“There’s an attraction-repulsion that happens with a lot of these paintings, and it’s hard to get a grip on,” Allan adds. “We’re not trying to communicate a single message with this show.”