Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904)
was a French painter and sculptor in the style now known as Academicism. The
range of his oeuvre included historical painting, Greek mythology,
Orientalism, portraits and other subjects, bringing the Academic painting
tradition to an artistic climax. He is considered one of the most important
painters from this academic period, and in addition to being a painter, he was
also a teacher with a long list of students.
Birthplace of Jean-Léon Gérôme in Vesoul (France).
Jean-Léon Gérôme was born at Vesoul, Haute-Saône. He went to Paris in 1840 where he
studied under Paul Delaroche, whom he accompanied to Italy (1843–44). He visited
Florence, Rome, the Vatican and Pompeii, but he was more attracted to the world of
nature. Taken by a fever, he was forced to return to Paris in 1844. On his return
he followed, like many other students of Delaroche, into the atelier of Charles
Gleyre and studied there for a brief time. He then attended the Ecole des
Beaux-Arts. In 1846 he tried to enter the prestigious Prix de Rome, but failed in
the final stage because his figure drawing was inadequate.
The Duel After the Masquerade (ca. 1857–59) depicts a duel after a costume ball
in Bois de Boulogne, Paris. The Walters Art Museum.
He tried to improve his skills by painting The Cockfight (1846), an academic
exercise depicting a nude young man and a lightly draped young woman with two
fighting cocks and in the background the Bay of Naples. He sent this painting to
the Salon of 1847, where it gained him a third-class medal. This work was seen as
the epitome of the Neo-Grec movement that had formed out of Gleyre's studio (such
as Henri-Pierre Picou (1824–1895) and Jean-Louis Hamon), and was championed by the
influential French critic Théophile Gautier.
Gérôme abandoned his dream of winning the Prix de Rome and took advantage of his
sudden success. His paintings The Virgin, the Infant Jesus and St John (private
collection) and Anacreon, Bacchus and Cupid (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France)
took a second-class medal in 1848. In 1849, he produced the paintings Michelangelo
(also called In his studio) (now in private collection) and A portrait of a Lady
(Musée Ingres, Montauban).
In 1851, he decorated a vase, later offered by Emperor Napoleon III of France to
Prince Albert, now part of the Royal Collection at St. James's Palace, London. He
exhibited Bacchus and Love, Drunk, a Greek Interior and Souvenir d'Italie, in 1851;
Paestum (1852); and An Idyll (1853).
In 1852, Gérôme received a commission by Alfred Emilien Comte de Nieuwerkerke,
Surintendant des Beaux-Arts to the court of Napoleon III, for the painting of a
large historical canvas, the Age of Augustus. In this canvas he combines the birth
of Christ with conquered nations paying homage to Augustus. Thanks to a
considerable down payment, he was able to travel in 1853 to Constantinople,
together with the actor Edmond Got. This would be the first of several travels to
the East: in 1854 he made another journey to Greece and Turkey and the shores of
the Danube, where he was present at a concert of Russian conscripts, making music
under the threat of a lash.
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 theatre of the studio the
great artists of her time such as the composers Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms and
Gioachino Rossini and the novelists Théophile Gautier and Ivan Turgenev.
In 1854, he completed another important commission of decorating the Chapel of
St. Jerome in the church of St. Séverin in Paris. His Last communion of St. Jerome
in this chapel reflects the influence of the school of Ingres on his religious
To the exhibition of 1855 he contributed a Pifferaro, a Shepherd, A Russian
Concert, and The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ. The last was somewhat
confused in effect, but in recognition of its consummate rendering the State
purchased it. However the modest painting, A Russian Concert (also called
Recreation in the Camp) was more appreciated than his huge canvases.
The Cockfight (1846); now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
In 1856, he visited Egypt for the first time. This would herald the start of many
orientalist paintings depicting Arab religion, genre scenes and North African
The Tulip Folly (1882) represents "tulipomania" in the Netherlands. Soldiers were
ordered to trample the flowerbeds in an effort to stabilize the market. The Walters
Gérôme's reputation was greatly enhanced at the Salon of 1857 by a collection of
works of a more popular kind: the Duel: after the Masked Ball (Musée Condé,
Chantilly), Egyptian Recruits crossing the Desert, Memnon and Sesostris and Camels
Watering, the drawing of which was criticized by Edmond About.
In 1858, he helped to decorate the Paris house of Prince Napoléon Joseph Charles
Paul Bonaparte in the Pompeian style. The prince had bought his Greek Interior
(1850), a depiction of a brothel also in the Pompeian manner.
In Caesar (1859) Gérôme tried to return to a more severe class of work, the
painting of Classical subjects, but the picture failed to interest the public.
Phryne before the Areopagus, King Candaules and Socrates finding Alcibiades in the
House of Aspasia (1861) gave rise to some scandal by reason of the subjects
selected by the painter, and brought down on him the bitter attacks of Paul de
Saint-Victor and Maxime Du Camp. At the same Salon he exhibited the Egyptian
Chopping Straw, and Rembrandt Biting an Etching, two very minutely finished
He married Marie Goupil (1842–1912), the daughter of the international art
dealer Adolphe Goupil. They had four daughters and one son. Upon his marriage he
moved to a house in the Rue de Bruxelles, close to the music hall Folies Bergère.
He expanded it into a grand house with stables with a sculpture studio below and a
painting studio on the top floor.
He started an independent atelier at his house in the Rue de Bruxelles between
1860 and 1862.
Gérôme was elected, on his fifth attempt, a member of the Institut de France in
1865. Already a knight in the Légion d'honneur, he was promoted to an officer in
1867. In 1869, he was elected an honorary member of the British Royal Academy. The
King of Prussia Wilhelm I awarded him the Grand Order of the Red Eagle, Third
Class. His fame had become such that he was invited, along with the most eminent
French artists, to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
He was appointed as one of the three professors at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He
started with sixteen students, most who had come over from his own studio. His
influence became extensive and he was a regular guest of Empress Eugénie at the
Imperial Court in Compiègne.
The theme of his Death of Caesar (1867) was repeated in his historical canvas
Death of Marshall Ney, that was exhibited at the Salon of 1867, despite official
pressure to withdraw it as it raised painful memories.
Gérôme returned successfully to the Salon in 1873 with his painting L'Eminence
Grise (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a colorful depiction of the main stair hall of
the palace of Cardinal Richelieu, popularly known as the Red Cardinal (L'Eminence
Rouge), who was France's de facto ruler under King Louis XIII beginning in 1624. In
the painting, François Le Clerc du Trembly, a Capuchin friar dubbed L'Eminence
Grise (the Gray Cardinal), descends the ceremonial staircase immersed in the Bible
while subjects either bow before him or fix their gaze on him. As Richelieu's chief
adviser, L'Eminence Grise was called "the power behind the throne," which became
the known definition of his title.
When he started to protest and show a public hostility to "decadent fashion" of
Impressionism, his influence started to wane and he became unfashionable. But after
the exhibition of Manet in the Ecole in 1884, he eventually admitted that "it was
not so bad as I thought."
In 1896 Gérôme painted Truth Rising from her Well, an attempt to describe the
transparency of an illusion. He therefore welcomed the rise of photography as an
alternative to his photographic painting. In 1902, he said "Thanks to photography,
Truth has at last left her well."