» Biography Home
» Biographies A-F
» Biographies G-M
» Biographies N-S
» Biographies T-Z
In the Paris Salon of 1847, a small picture appeared, representing a Greek boy and girl stirring up two game-cocks to fight. Although it was the work of an unknown painter, and had to contend with an unusually brilliant display of pictures, many of them by men already famous, yet it strongly attracted the general public, partly by the novelty of the subject, and partly by the careful and finished manner of the painting. It delighted the critics as well, and one of the most distinguished of them, Theophile Gautier, wrote: "A new Greek is born to us, and his name is Gerome!"
This picture, which was to prove the first leaf in a laurel-crown to be awarded the painter in his lifetime, and not, as is so often the case, by the tardy hand of Death, was the work of Jean-Leon Gerome, a young man of twenty-three. He had been for six years under the teaching of Paul Delaroche, part of the time in Italy, but most of it in Paris. He was born at Vesoul, a small, dull town in the Department of Haute-Saone, in 1824. His father was a goldsmith, who, like most French fathers in his rank of life, had hoped to bring up his son to succeed him in his business. The boy did for a time, we believe, work in his father's shop, but he had a stronger natural bent for painting; something perhaps in the occupation fostered, or even created, this taste--for not a few distinguished painters have been apprenticed to the goldsmith's trade--and his father, like a wise man, instead of opposing his son's wishes, did what he could to further them. He bought him painting-materials; and instead of sending him to a "school of design," or putting him under the tutelage of some third-rate drawing-master, such as is commonly found in country towns, he bought him a picture by Decamps, an artist since become famous, but then just in the dawn of his fame, and put it before his son as a model. Young Gerome made a copy of this picture, and an artist from Paris, who happened to be passing through Vesoul, saw it, and discerning the boy's talent, gave him a letter to Paul Delaroche, encouraging him to go to Paris and there to take up the study of art as a profession. At seventeen years of age, with his father's consent and $250 in his pocket, Gerome went up to Paris, and presenting his letter to Delaroche, was well received by him, and entered the School of Fine Arts (Ecole des Beaux-Arts) as his pupil.
He had been with Delaroche three years and had proved himself one of the most loyal and diligent of his pupils, when an event occurred, insignificant in itself, but which was to have an important influence upon his life and give a new direction to his talent.
French studios are not as a rule very orderly places. The young men who frequent them are left pretty much to themselves, with no one to govern them or to oversee them. The artist they are studying under makes, at the most, a brief daily visit, going the round of the easels, saying a word or two to each pupil, although it often happens that he says nothing, and then departs for his proper work, leaving his pupils to their own devices. The students are for the most part like young men everywhere, a turbulent set, full of animal spirits, which sometimes carry them beyond reasonable bounds. It was a boisterous outbreak of this sort, but far wilder than common, that occurred in the studio of Delaroche, and which brought about the crisis in Gerome's life to which we have alluded. Fortunately for him, the incident took place while Gerome was on a visit to his parents at Vesoul, so that he was in no way implicated in the affair. He came back to find the studio closed; Delaroche, deeply disturbed, had dismissed all his pupils and announced his intention to visit Italy. His studio was to be taken during his absence, by Gleyre, and he advised those of his pupils in whom he took a personal interest, to continue their studies under his successor. Gerome was one of those to whom he gave this advice, but Gerome was too much attached to his master to leave him for another, and bluntly announced his purpose of following him to Rome. A few of the other pupils of Delaroche were of the same mind, and they all set out for Italy together. Arrived in Rome, Gerome, always a hard worker, threw himself energetically into his studies; drawing the ancient buildings, the Capitol, the Colosseum; sketching in the Forum and on the Campagna; copying the pictures and the statues, saturating his mind in the spirit of antique art, and schooling his hand in its forms, until he had laid up a rich store of material for use in future pictures. On his return to Paris he worked for a while in Gleyre's studio, but when Delaroche came back from Italy, Gerome again joined him and renewed his old relation as pupil and assistant--working, among other tasks, on the painting of "Charlemagne Crossing the Alps," a commission given to Delaroche by the Government, for the Grande Galerie des Batailles at Versailles: a vast apartment lined with pictures of all the victories of the French from Soissons to Solferino.
Such work as this, however, had little interest for Gerome. His mind at this time was full of the Greeks and Romans; his enthusiasm for Napoleon, which later was to give birth to so many pictures, had not yet awakened; nor did he care for the subjects from the histories of France and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that had provided his master, Delaroche, with so many tragic themes for his pencil: "The Death of the Duke of Guise," "The Children of Edward," the "Death of Queen Elizabeth," "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey," "Cromwell at the Coffin of Charles I.," and others of the same strain.
Gerome's visit to Italy had awakened in him a strong interest in the life of the antique world, and this would naturally be strengthened by all that he would hear and see of the growing interest of the public in the same subject: an interest kindled by the discoveries of archaeologists in classic soil: in Greece and Italy, in Assyria and Egypt. These discoveries had filled the museums and the cabinets of private collectors with beautiful and interesting fragments illustrating the external life of the past, and illuminating its poetry; and it is no wonder that some of the younger artists rejoiced in the new world of anecdote and story that opened so richly before them.
However it came about--whether his own interest in the antique life communicated itself to his fellows, or whether they, all together, simply shared in the interest taken in the subject by the world about them--Gerome and some of his companions in Delaroche's studio showed such a predilection for classic themes, that they were nicknamed by the critics "The New Greeks." Among Gerome's fellow-pupils were two young men, Hamon and Aubert, who later gained no small applause by their playful and familiar way of treating classic themes. They are well known to us by engravings from their pictures, which are in all our shops. Hamon's "My Sister is not at home," and Aubert's various pretty fancies of nymphs and cupids, while they are not great works of art, are reasonably sure of a long life, due to their innocent freshness and simplicity.
Delaroche's pupils were working all together in friendly competition for the grand Roman prize which was to give the fortunate one the right to four years' study in Rome at the expense of the state. Gerome's studio was shared by his friends Picou and Hamon. Hamon, writing in later years about his youthful days, says: "Companions and rivals at the same time, we were all working together for the Grand Prix de Rome. Gerome inspired us all with the love of hard work, and of hard work to the accompaniment of singing and laughing."
But in the intervals of his hard work for the prize, Gerome was also working on a picture which he hoped to have accepted for the Salon. This was the picture we spoke of in the beginning of this notice: "Two Young Greeks stirring-up Game-cocks to fight." When it was finished Gerome showed it to his master with many misgivings; but Delaroche encouraged him to send it to the Salon. It was accepted, and as we have seen, won for Gerome a great success with the public. The next year, 1848, he again exhibited, but the impression he made was less marked than on the first occasion. His former picture had a subject such as it was, of his own devising. The "Cock-fight" was not an illustration of any passage in Greek poetry, and in spite of its antique setting, it had a modern air, and to this, no doubt, its popularity was largely due. But in 1848 he essayed an illustration of the Greek poet, Anacreon, translating into picture the poem that tells how, one winter evening, sitting by his fire, the old poet was surprised by a sound of weeping outside his door, and opening it, found Cupid wet and shivering and begging for a shelter from the cold. The man takes the pretty, dimpled mischief to his bosom, warms his feet and hands at the fire, dries his bow and arrows, and lets him sip wine from his cup. Then, when Cupid is refreshed and warmed, he tries his arrows, now here, now there, and at last aims one straight at his benefactor's heart, and laughing at the jest, flies out at the open door. Gerome's picture was in three panels. The first showed the poet opening the door to the sobbing Cupid, with his bedraggled wings and dripping curls; in the next, the rosy ingrate wounds his benefactor; in the third, the poet sits disconsolate by his hearth, musing over the days when Love was his guest, if but for an hour. As the story was an old one, so many an artist before Gerome had played with it as a subject for a picture. Jean-Francois Millet himself, another pupil of Delaroche, though earlier than Gerome, had tried his hand at illustrating Anacreon's fable before he found his proper field of work in portraying the occupations of the men and women about him, the peasants among whom he was born and bred.
Gerome's picture did nothing to advance his fortunes with the public. 1848 was a stormy time in France and in all Europe, and people were not in the mood to be amused with such trifles as Anacreon and his Cupid. The pictures in that year's Salon that drew the public in crowds about them were Couture's "The Romans of the Decline of the Empire," in which all Paris saw, or thought it saw, the handwriting-on-the-wall for the government of Louis-Philippe; and the "Shipwrecked Sailors in a Bark," of Delacroix, a wild and stormy scene of terror that seemed to echo the prophecies of evil days at hand for France with which the time was rife.
Gerome's next picture, however, was to bring him once more before the public, and to carry his name beyond his native France even as far as America. Leaving for the nonce his chosen field of antiquity, where yet he was to distinguish himself, he looked for a subject in the Paris of his own day. "The Duel after the Masquerade" opens for us a corner of the Bois de Boulogne--the fashionable park on the outskirts of Paris--where in the still dawn of a winter's day, a group of men are met to witness a duel between two of their companions who have quarrelled at a masked ball. The ground is covered with a light fall of snow; the bare branches of the trees weave their network across the gray sky, and in the distance we see the carriages that have brought the disputants to the field. The duel is over. One of the men, dressed in the costume of Pierrot, the loose white trousers and slippers, the baggy white shirt, and white skull-cap, falls, mortally wounded, into the arms of his second: the pallor of coming death masked by the white-painted face. The other combatant, a Mohawk Indian (once a staple character at every masked-ball in Paris: curious survival of the popularity of Cooper's novels), is led wounded off the field by a friend dressed as Harlequin. Gerome in this striking picture showed for the first time that talent as a story-teller to which he is so largely indebted for his reputation. Whatever his subject may be, it is always set forth in the clearest manner, so that everyone may understand the story without the need of an interpreter.
Leaving out of view the few pictures he painted illustrating passages in Napoleon's career, it may be said that Gerome's taste led him away from scenes of modern life; for even his many oriental subjects so relate to forms of life belonging in reality to the past, that they make no exception to the statement. He did not therefore follow up "The Duel" with other comments on the follies of modern society--for in the temper of that time this picture, like Couture's "Roman Orgie" and Millet's "Man with the Hoe," was looked upon as a satire and a warning, and owed its popularity as much to this conviction on the part of the public as to its pictorial merits--but returned to antique times, and showed in his treatment of themes from that source an equal, if not a greater power to interest the public.
Gerome's two pictures, the "Ave Caesar! Morituri te Salutant," "Hail, Caesar! Those about to die, salute Thee," and "The Gladiators," are so universally known as to need no description. Whatever criticism may be made upon them, they will always remain interesting to the world at large; from their subject, from the way in which the discoveries of archaeology are made familiar, and, not least, from the impression they make of the artist's own strong interest in what he had to say. In both pictures he succeeded in showing the Colosseum as no longer a ruin, but as, so to speak, a living place peopled by the swarm of the Roman populace, with the emperor and his court, and the College of the Vestal Virgins, and, for chief actors, the hapless wretches who are "butchered to make a Roman holiday." Another picture that greatly increased Gerome's reputation, was his "Death of Julius Caesar," though it must be confessed there was a touch of the stage in the arrangement of the scene, and in the action of the body of senators and conspirators leaving the hall with brandished swords and as if singing in chorus, that was absent from the pictures of the amphitheatre. There was also less material for the curiosity of the lovers of archaeology; no such striking point, for instance, as the reproduction of the gladiators' helmets and armor recently discovered in Herculaneum; but the body of the dead Caesar lying "even at the base of Pompey's statue" with his face muffled in his toga, was a masterly performance; some critic, moved by the grandeur of the lines, said it was not a mere piece of foreshortening, it was "a perspective." Gerome made a life-size painting of the Caesar in this picture. It is in the Corcoran Gallery at Washington.
Gerome painted several other pictures from classic subjects, but none of them had the interest for the general public of those we have described. In 1854 he exhibited a huge canvas, called "The Age of Augustus," a picture suggested, perhaps, by the "Hemicycle" of his master Delaroche, on which he himself had painted. It represented heroes, poets, sages, of the Augustan age, grouped about the cradle of the infant Christ; it procured for Gerome the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor, and is now, as the artist himself jestingly says, "the 'greatest' picture in the Museum of Amiens." In the same year Gerome went to Egypt for the first time; since then he has more than once visited it, but it is doubtful if he could renew the pleasure of his youthful experience. "I set out," he says, "with my friends, I the fifth, all of us lightly furnished with money, but full of youthful enthusiasm. Life was then easy in Egypt; we lived at a very moderate rate; we hired a boat and lived four months upon the Nile, hunting, painting, fishing by turns, from Damietta to Philae. We returned to Cairo and remained there four months longer in a house in the older part of the town, belonging to Soleman Pasha. As Frenchmen, he treated us with cordial hospitality. Happy period of youth, of freedom from care! Hope and the future opened bright before us; the sky was blue!"
Gerome's pictures of Eastern life make a gallery by themselves. A few of them are historic, such as his "Cleopatra visiting Caesar," but the most of them are simply scenes and incidents drawn from the daily life of the modern inhabitants of Cairo and the desert, illustrating their manners and customs. The mere titles would fill up a large part of our space. Many of the best of them are owned in this country, and all have been reproduced by engraving or by photography.
In another field Gerome won great distinction, painting scenes from the history of France in the reign of Louis XIV.; subjects drawn from what may be called the high comedy of court-life, and treated by Gerome with remarkable refinement and distinction. Among these pictures the best known are: "Moliere Breakfasting with Louis XIV.," illustrating the story of the king's rebuke to his courtiers who affected to despise the man of genius; "Pere Joseph," the priest who under the guise of humility and self-abnegation reduces the greatest nobles to the state of lackeys; "Louis XIV. Receiving the Great Conde," and "Collaboration," two poets of Louis XIV.'s time working together over a play. Among his accomplishments as an artist we must not forget the talent that Gerome has shown as a sculptor. He has modelled several figures from his own pictures, with such admirable skill as to prove that he might easily have made sculpture a profession had he not chosen to devote himself to painting.