Gladiators, Harem Girls Emerge From Hiding at Musee d’Orsay

"Phryne before the Areopagus" (1861) by Jean-Leon Gerome. The work is on loan from the Hamburg Kunsthalle to the show at the Musee d'Orsay running through Jan 23. Source: Musee d'Prsay via Bloomberg

Had Cecil B. DeMille been a painter, his canvases would look like those of Jean-Leon Gerome. The French artist’s gladiator fights and scenes of Roman decadence could be straight out of epic films such as “Cleopatra” and “The Sign of the Cross.”

The vast show at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris is a witty counterpoint to the Monet retrospective at the Grand Palais: Gerome hated the Impressionists and did what he could to prevent their paintings from entering French museums.

In 1894, he lobbied the French government not to accept a bequest from the painter Gustave Caillebotte consisting of 67 “ordures,” or trash, as he called them, by Monet, Degas and Renoir, among others. He was only partially successful: 40 items passed muster; most of the rest ended up in the collection of Dr. Barnes in Philadelphia.

At the 1900 Exposition Universelle, he tried to dissuade President Loubet from entering the Salle Impressionniste: “Don’t go, Mr. President, this is France’s shame!”

The curators savored their revenge. After the triumph of Impressionism, Gerome was banished to the storerooms. The show at the Musee d’Orsay is the first since his death in 1904.

It’s no accident that it has been jointly organized with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles where it started in June. The Vanderbilts, the Astors and other U.S. millionaires were among Gerome’s most fervent admirers. Many of the 200 works on display come from U.S. collections.

Master of Technique

Today, we smile at Gerome’s unabashed showmanship, his calculated sentimentality and the come-hither voluptuousness of many scenes. His technical mastery is never in doubt.

From his teacher Paul Delaroche he learned all the tricks of the traditional academic style, and from Ingres he grasped the secret of giving an erotic glow to human flesh. After his first success at the 1847 salon -- a cock fight watched by two sleek nudes -- he was hailed as the paragon of a Neo-Greek school of painting.

Again and again, Gerome fell back on picturesque anecdotes from ancient Greece and Rome. Another of his specialties was Oriental scenes, much en vogue at the time. To get inspiration for his Turkish baths, harems and snake charmers, he went on trips to Constantinople, Egypt and Syria.

Customers less interested in exotic settings could choose between scenes from French history or contemporary dramas --such as the famous “Duel After the Masked Ball.”

Gerome may have been a reactionary; his production and marketing methods were ahead of his time. In his slyly erotic “Phryne Before the Areopagus,” the nude object of male curiosity is an almost exact copy of a photo by Nadar -- without the pubic hair, of course.

Mass Production

Like Andy Warhol after him, Gerome understood that big business starts with mass production. Adolphe Goupil, his dealer and father-in-law, made a fortune for the painter and himself by selling copies of his paintings as photogravures.

In his later years, Gerome tried his hand at sculpture. Inspired by archaeological discoveries indicating that the Greeks had painted their statues, he tinted his marble works with a mixture of wax and pigment. There are a few striking examples in the show.

Then, suddenly, you find yourself in front of a charming little canvas, depicting the painter’s father and son with a dog, and you understand that deep down, beneath the fireworks of vapid virtuosity, hid a great artist.

The exhibition is at the Musee d’Orsay through Jan. 23, 2011. From March 1 to May 22, 2011, it will be at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Information: or +33-1-4049-4814.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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