April 11, 2015

Jean-Léon Gérôme - torn between romantic idealism and historic realism

Jean-Léon Gérôme, born 1824 in France, was a master of the style now known as Academicism. His many paintings depicting historical scenes, Greek mythology, Orientalism, portraits and other subjects guarantee his name will live on for centuries to come. That being said, he's also responsible for more than a few stunning sculptural works.

Gérôme’s artistic career began in 1840 in Paris where he practiced his craft under Paul Delaroche's watchful eye. He accompanied Delaroche to Italy to continue his studies. Two years later he returned to Paris and attended the École des Beaux-Arts, entering the Prix de Rome competition in hopes of returning to Italy, but he failed to qualify for the final stage in 1846 because of his inadequate figure drawing. Consequently, Gérôme became obsessed with painting the perfect nude—an ambition he would harbor throughout his life.

In 1853, Gérôme moved to the Boîte à Thé, a group of studios in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris. This would become a meeting place for other artists, writers and actors. George Sand entertained in the small theater of the studio the great artists of her time such as the composers Berlioz, Brahms and Rossini and the novelists Gautier and Turgenev. No doubt this was an environment conductive to the cross pollination of artistic ideas. Gérôme both inspired and was influenced by these greats.

He made his name rendering allegorical scenes from ancient Greece and Rome in exquisite detail, often incorporating neoclassical concepts. His breakthrough in France allowed him to travel the world and his many journeys proved to be a great inspiration, birthing a great deal of historical paintings. His visits to Northern Africa, Egypt in particular, made a lasting impression and he would return to it in his paintings ever after.

Although Gérôme is famous for his idealized depictions of reality, he achieved detail so vivid that his work, even though the scenes and people in them were larger than life, appeared to ring true. He perfected many of the techniques that realists would later employ and in many ways is responsible for the realist movement's birth as it took off in response to the exaggerated reality he had helped popularize. In 1902 he said; "Thanks to photography, Truth has at last left her well.". I for one am glad that Gérôme was born ahead of what might have been his time. He blurred the lines between the real and the fantastic most beautifully.

Jean-Léon Gérôme died in his atelier on 10 January 1904. He was found in front of a portrait of Rembrandt and close to his own painting "The Truth".

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