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

June 21, 2010 |  4:09 pm

Gerome Thumbs Down 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.

Gerome masquerade 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.

Gerome Pygmalion 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.

Photos: Jean-Léon Gérôme, "Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down)," 1872; "The Duel After the Masquerade,"1857-59; "Pygmalion and Galatea," about 1890. Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum


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

Comments () | Archives (12)

Wow. Um, so an artist who is *clearly* a master of his craft and producing work that satisfied himself and his audience is somehow a hack? I think this proves the age old adage:

'Those who can - do, those who can't...'

To compare a master painter to pop culture film schlock is beyond apples and oranges. How about you spend 10-20 years of daily consistent practice and then come back to us with your opinion. I have seen originals of his work and they are beyond stunning. He painted beautiful depictions of exciting drama and exotic scenes not many people were privy to at that time you're going to bag on him personally? Save your critique for Kinkaid. You are completely off base.

But hey, your trick worked. You got a rise out of me and I glanced over a couple of advertisements on the side of your article. Oooo look! Adverts for MLB jerseys splashed right across your very precious and scathing art critique!

Seriously this review must have been written in crayons. Ridiculous. No respect for the craft, personal vision, commitment or passion which are the hallmarks of Gerome's work. This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to share a life of powerful creative genius with our contemporary society and somehow it has managed to be written off by one who claims to know about such things. Spend some time, look around. Create and then perhaps you may actually know. Gerome was a master.

Let us allow Mr. Gérôme to rise from the grave and answer Mr. Knight with his own words: “As to the self-styled critics, their approbation and their raillery have always found me indifferent, for I have always had the most profound contempt for these ignorant vermin, who prey upon the bodies of artists.…These art critics, whose ignorance is often deplorable,—quite encyclopædic in fact,—who have not learned the a b c of our profession, consider themselves fully competent to criticize it.”
-- Gérôme quoted in Century magazine, February, 1889, page 488 and 495.
(Taken from the superb art blog, GurneyJourney.blogspot.com)

Take it from me (as someone who actually does art rather than just writing about it), this exhibit is magnificent and worth seeing more than once! Gérôme is revered by artists and illustrators today as a great master and teacher, and it is obvious why. This is among the most stunning displays of art at the Getty I have yet seen, and I applaud them.

Please go see the show for yourselves. It's spectacular!!! Support the Getty. Get inspired. Write your own reviews.

I think some of the comments help illustrate the proper role of a critic, much as with film. Describe the subject in detail, without giving away the plot, spell out the points you like or don't, but in the end, leave it up to the reader to make up his own mind. This critique fails in that it tries too hard to turn the mind of the reader, - hurriedly in the final lines, with sweeping statements not backed by facts.

Gerome loved mere illusionism? Is that a crack at his technique? But then, how does that explain his subject matter? Why didn't he just paint still lives then? Why the historical/allegorical focus? And if all those other artists were on the other side of some imagined fight, why were they friends who revered each other? And can you really equate Gerome's following his own path, and creating what he wanted to "not having a clue"? To an artist, what matters most is to create one's dreams. Not what people might say about it one hundred years from now. Art isn't a bandwagon you're supposed to hop on, it's a chance for personal expression and growth. Why do you think Hirst takes time away from his blockbuster conceptual pieces and paints? And then never shows the work?

There are more crits, some quite scathing, over here: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2010/07/geromes-critics.html

It's worth a read and consideration.

Mr Knight, let us see your work. I'm sure you are a modern master when it comes to drawing, painting, the use of color, and I'm sure every idea you have had has been an original and a masterpiece. Oh, and helped to "invent a genre"....

Sheesh, I'm not even a fan of Gerome more often than not but this "review," and I use the term loosely, is idiotic and pathetic.

"Gérôme helped to invent the genre of sword-and-sandal epic"

What is Christoper Knight talking about? Neoclassicism and classicism were around centuries before Gerome. Perhaps he meant that Hollywood was particularly inspired by Gerome's imagery, but if that's the case it was very awkwardly articulated for a professional writer, leaving me wondering about his knowledge of art history as well. Can I have his job?

Please read a very educated response to this by James Gurney.


Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight gives the “thumbs down” to academic painter Jean-Leon Gérôme (1824-1904), who is featured in a large exhibition currently at the Getty Museum.

Knight dismisses Gérôme as a “populist painter” who “didn’t have a clue,” and who indulged in “sword-and-sandal melodramas.” He argues that he failed the Prix de Rome competition through lack of drawing ability, later selling out to commercial considerations.

According to Knight, “every artist we revere today was on the other side” of Gérôme and that he failed because he “disengaged with art’s possibilities” by limiting his artwork to mere illusionism.

Although Gérôme’s artwork is not above criticism, Mr. Knight’s assessment is regrettably narrow and unfair.

The documentary evidence from writers of Gérôme’s own day paints a more sympathetic and nuanced portrait of the man and his art.

Gérôme was genuinely respected by critics his day, and by his students, even many who pursued an impressionist approach to painting. He was admired not just for his ability as an artist, but for the breadth of his artistic vision.

Consider the following:

“Gérôme remains at sixty years of age the same as he was at thirty-six: as youthful, vigorous, active, and wiry; full of life and sympathetic. An agreeable, gay talker, pensive notwithstanding his good humor, respectful of his art, frank and loyal, adored by his pupils, he is the professor who teaches the young those rare and neglected virtues: simplicity, study, and labor. In a word he is a noble example of what a master-painter of the nineteenth century may be: an artistic soul with a soldier’s temperament, a heart of gold in an iron body.”

--French critic Jules Claretie, quoted in Nancy Douglas Bowditch, George de Forest Brush: Recollections of a Joyous Painter.

“I cannot but esteem him as one of the masters and most distinguished men of his age.”
--J. Alden Weir, “Open Letters.”

“As a teacher he is very dignified and apparently cold, but really most kind and soft-hearted, giving his foreign pupils every attention. In his teaching he avoids anything like recipes for painting; he constantly points out truths of nature and teaches that art can be attained only through increased perception and not by processes. But he pleads constantly with his pupils to understand that although absolute fidelity to nature must be ever in mind, yet if they do not at last make imitation serve expression, they will end as they began—only children.”

--George de Forest Brush, in “Open Letters: American Artists on Gerome,” Century magazine, February 1889.

“Oblivious to methods, seeking to develop each pupil’s peculiarities and temperament, he frowned upon any attempt to follow in his ways unless he thought it entirely within the sympathies of the pupil.”
--Wyatt Eaton, “Open Letters.”

Let us allow Mr. Gérôme to rise from the grave and answer Mr. Knight with his own words: “As to the self-styled critics, their approbation and their raillery have always found me indifferent, for I have always had the most profound contempt for these ignorant vermin, who prey upon the bodies of artists.…These art critics, whose ignorance is often deplorable,—quite encyclopædic in fact,—who have not learned the a b c of our profession, consider themselves fully competent to criticize it.”
-- Gérôme quoted in Century magazine, February, 1889, page 488 and 495.

The exhibition “The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme will remain on view at the Getty Museum in West Los Angeles through September 12, 2010. The first exhibit of its kind in nearly 40 years, it contains 99 works by Gérôme and his contemporaries.

Actually, I didn't say I thought Gerome lost the Prix de Rome because he lacked drawing ability; I said "In the eyes of ... France's Royal Academy, his figure drawing was inadequate." The lack of drawing ability was their judgment, circa 1846, not mine today.

Nor did I (or would I) say Gerome "sold out." Sold out from what? If anything, he "bought in" -- which isn't the same thing.

In 1872, the same year as Gerome's "sword and sandal" painting, Claude Monet painted "Impression: Sunrise," the work from which Impressionism got its name. (The Getty owns a related work, "Sunrise (Marine)," made the following year. ) Theophile Gautier, Gerome's fierce champion -- and the critic for the official imperial newspaper, who several comments here approvingly quote -- dismissed Monet for making what he thought amounted to little more than a sketch.

Gautier was even more harsh on another occasion, comparing Monet's painting to "a commercial signboard." Emile Zola, Gautier's (and Gerome's) antagonist, was not amused.

I'm with Zola. Compared to the highly finished, illusionist surface of something like "Thumbs Down," a mere sketch is indeed what "Impression: Sunrise" was -- and what Monet meant it to be.

In fact, that's what much of the contest between academic conventions and Modern art was about: painting as a material surface that could support an independent style, rather than one dictated and enforced by the academy. Of course the academy, as my review says, had its own problems with Gerome -- which is why he ultimately turned to the court of public opinion, where he found at least temporary success.

To perhaps oversimplify: Academics looked to the Royal Academy for approval; Modern artists looked to themselves and their cohorts for approval; and Gerome, having neither the Academy nor the new artists on his side, turned to the general public, who liked what they saw. This was something new in the history of art. As my review also said, the Getty show is certainly worth seeing, for that very reason.

Sorry CK, but Contempt artistes also "buy" in, they pay for MFAs from degree mills, the new spread out Academy, with playgrounds like the Whitney, MoCA and the New Museum their salons. Modern artists, who outside of Anselm Kiefer are not allowed to show or get attention anymore, looked to create works that had the intertwining of mind, body and soul to meekly compete with the works of god, of nature, built upon the human culture of all the world. Now it is slivers of illustrative mush of miniscule and irrelevant ideas that only an Academy could love, as intelligent, sensual, and passionate folks stay away from it in droves.

Gerome and the more mainstream Salon painters had develped incredible technqiue, but had fallen into the trap of painting individual things put together in scenes to stimulate more than the soul, actually anything but. Carnal, possessive, perverted from truth, not following it. Gerome is an illustrator, much like todays, but a slave to visual appearance, and not creating a painting. Whistler had a similar response to what Monet got, better and earlier actually with his Nocturne's, and the impressionists were also overrated, except to what Monet himself went on later to create, his Cathedrals and Haystacks blossoming into his incredible richness of color and spirituality in his Waterlillies.

Todays artistes like your beloved Baldessari cater to exactly the same crowd, and those looking to extend their possessive sense of power and control, and need for perverted entertainment, as these painters. It should be interesting to see, as will the nonsense of today in one hundred years as a social indictment, but we are coming out of similar times as that Gilded Age. Neither are creative art, both items to be purchased and speculated upon for self aggrandizement of materialism and soul. But at least those of the past went to the opposite extreme, todays of ideas themselves, master thesis irrelevancies expounded, where they created immaculate creations that took painting to an extreme, they were incredible crafstmen, but their line is dead. It encloses things, and has no personality it self, nor creation of relationships that enliven the entire canvas, and so layers of meaning in the strictly visual language to stimulate and make one feel intensity of life.

Then it was illistration of bad literature, today it is pseudo literary games and psychobabble. Which is worse? At least they had developed great skill, if used to a bad end. What do your heroes contribute to humanity? Nothing, and so we stay away in droves, even the World Cup gets more interest in America.(Kobe hatrs of America unite in Miami!)

Art collegia Delenda est
fine art colleges must be destroyed

Dear Mr. Knight,

Thank you for taking the time to respond. If you could talk in more depth, there were some other good questions raised:

1. What do you mean in saying Gerome invented the sword and sandal epic? Afterall neoclassicisms major names all come from the late 18th, early 19th century, a hundred years earlier, centered also in France. Maybe there was something new that set his works apart - the subject itself, not just who he was appealing to.

2. The divide between the French Academy and various rebels is well established, but it would be great to get insight into the relationships Gerome had with various contemporaries. This would be great to comment on.

3. You assert that Gerome chose works based on what would appeal to the public, as if he were pandering to them for mere fame. Do you truly believe he didn't have any other reason to choose the subjects and scenes he painted? That he wanted to tell a story, to excite people, and do you have any hard evidence of this? Say, like a Warhol diary where he makes fun of what he made and the people who bought it?

4. What do you mean in saying Gerome was clueless? That he couldn't forsee where art was heading? No one ever knows this. Monet and Degas didn't know either, they just got lucky, so why single out Gerome? Predicting the future is never more than guesswork, especially the farther ahead you look.

5. What do you mean in criticizing "mere illusionism"? I find the ability to create illusions fascinating, with endless possibilities. In these short words, the only reason I see to dismiss it is that the academy wanted it, that it limits individual style. And yet, pick any work, from any well known realist painter, and you can tell immediately who the artist is. So is style really so limited?

[The following is excerpted from an e-mail sent to Christopher Knight. It comes late to the debate, but I missed the reviews when they originally appeared in the Times. Fortunately, I did not miss the exhibition.]

...With regard to your appraisal of Gérôme’s work, I remain convinced that you failed to step outside of present convention to see anything new and different in it. You missed a chance to advance the understanding of a significant 19th century artist. When you write that Gérôme “disengaged” himself from the “possibilities of art” because he was only interested in the power of illusionism, you are complacently restating modernist dogma. I would argue that Gérôme totally engaged himself in the possibility of art as illusion (and not necessarily at the expense of the abstract, or, two-dimensional concerns of painting).Why should illusionism be esteemed less virtuous than paint materiality in a post-modern era? If you wanted to argue that the greatest art finds a way to address both possibilities simultaneously and beautifully, as it does in the painting of Diego Velázquez, you’d have a point, but then you’d have to dismiss a host of modern painters who were uninterested in (and unable to achieve) any suspension of disbelief on the flat surface whatsoever.

You say that Gérôme’s painterly thrills are in short supply. If you mean “painterly” in the sense that his technique doesn’t look like Jackson-Pollock’s, your criterion is too narrow. His use of color, value, tonality, transparency and opacity of pigment are considerable apart from their ability to create illusion. Otherwise any photographer able to pose models with swords, sandals, or snakes could replicate a Gérôme.

You label him provincial and seem willing to accept the Academy’s view of his figure drawing as inadequate. Are you serious? Gérôme was a superb draftsman, one more inclined to realism rather than the mannerism of Ingres’ heirs at the Academy. It seems to me that any “inadequacy” in Gérôme is really a lack of conviction to the attenuated neo-classical approach of his early training, which did not suit him temperamentally.

What about Gérôme’s value as a documenter of exotic people and places? His painting isn’t fantastic or decorative, unlike the work of many orientalists. It is specific, sharply-focused, and engagingly ambivalent, like reality itself. Gérôme’s realism lends itself to different interpretations. It is provocative in the sense that it makes one feel something and makes one want to know something about its subjects. This is not as easy to do as Gérôme makes it seem.

When you write, “every artist we revere today was on the other side of Gérôme's fight,” I’m unsure how to regard such a claim, let alone to determine whether it is true or not. Are you asserting that Gérôme’s preoccupation with illusionism pits him against every worthwhile artist of his time and afterwards? Or are you saying that only those artists committed to the process of dismantling illusionism have value for us today? If it is the latter, you are resorting to a nihilistic modernist presumption—one that led to the collapse of modernism in the late 20th century and begs the whole question of critical revision.

The consensus of history you reference is not so much the judgment of the public past and present as it is the conclusion of critics plotting the genealogy of modernism. Your review identifies Gérôme’s art as precursor of popular culture—a serious subject, as you say. But then you seem uninterested in the public’s view of it today, except to quip that it should appeal to an audience that likes schlocky summer movies. I suspect that the museum-going public will be more open to reevaluation than you were. In time it may turn out that Gérôme really does not merit the loftier tiers of Parnassus, but his work certainly deserves better than you were willing to give.


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