The French Academic painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme

10 January 1904, the French Academic painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme died at the age of 79 in Paris.
“This is the picture before which the crowd stops most willingly. ... O honest and intelligent crowd. Whom we have so often abused when we have surprised thee in the act of using as a mirror the varnish of some abominable painting! We gladly award thee the praise thou meritest.“ (Théophile Gautier)

Jean-Léon Gérôme: "Grande Piscine de Brousse" (1885)

What might the future of history painting look like? Bleak, was Baudelaire’s unsurprising answer during the Salon of 1859. Book-learning and academics obfuscated a complete lack of imagination and it were contemporary scenes and everyday people clad in togas and fireman’s helmets or posing in the nekkid in front of columns, usually masquerading as heroes of antiquity or members of the Greek pantheon. Baudelaire’s critic was well-founded and many of the exhibits of the Salon and the pieces hanging in the upper classes’ parlours and bedrooms were technically sound kitsch. But some academic artists and history painters in the aftermath of the Romantic Movement and influenced by Realism, if they wanted or not, produced a distinctive pictorial narrative and did not lack imagination at all. Whether as direct response to Baudelaire’s essay or as an unconscious counterdraft to his critic, in the same year, 1859, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s submissions to the famous annual exhibition received particular attention of the jurors. He did things a bit different than most of the other academic artists. With said background of a formal and thorough artistic academic education and undeniable talent, Gérôme had already caught the attention not only of a well-paying audience but that of Emperor Napoleon III as well, circumstances that provided him with ample funds and enough leeway to travel the places and see the sights he would later capture on canvas, romanticised scenes from North Africa, Turkey and Egypt, painted with a full-fledged realistic approach and the usual motifs of the European yearning characterised as Orientalism, picturesque places and folk, baths, slave markets, warriors and the ubiquitous views from the harem. 

Popularising Hollywood's Roman "thumbs down" gesture: Jean-Léon Gérôme's: "Pollice Verso" (1872)

Morals, politics and photography had shaken 19th century art to the very foundation in Gérôme’s life and times. Many painters began to see the steady advance of technical possibilities to eternalise scenes from the life in a moment as a threat to their very raison d'être and vocation. Mainstream art tried to counter this development by composing scenes and adding ideological value with integrating motifs of allegorical idealism. Often from the realm of plain, chauvinistic nationalism beyond bourgeois values rather universal all over Europe and an artistic approach to depict their vision as realistic as possible, if only in terms of tangible imaginability. Imagination played an even greater role in choosing a sujet that was inaccessible to photographers - the realms of history, mythology and religion – or at least difficult to get to, like places abroad and exotic motives that only few could check for their accuracy or even content of truth and had the decided advantage that spectators could excite themselves over other peoples’ barbarism, especially if they were colonial subjects. And here depictions of otherwise repressed sexuality, sexually charged violence and just plain nudity were acceptable if they only took place in a remote setting, but sometimes even that was too close for the audience’s comfort. By depicting racy historical éclats, some caused a very contemporary scandal, even the most established academic artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme. Gérôme caused offence even twice by painting ladies of the demi monde like the Bohémien modern artists he despised and fought, only that his models were already dead for 2,500 years, the illustrious hetairai Phryne and Aspasia. Gérôme was eventually forgiven and remained one of the most influential academic painters and sculptors of the 19th century.

Jean-Léon Gérôme: “Black Bashi Bazouk“ (1869)

However, it wasn’t the exuberant phantasy of a Delacroix or Géricault’s algolagnia, the Romantic Movement was over around 1850 anyway, and Gérôme was schooled along the lines of Jacques-Louis David’s brawny Classicism, but a certain preference of erudite, esoteric subjects, the exotic, weird and wonderful runs like a continuous thread through his oeuvre. A strong, narrative aspect, painting a picture that tells a story, almost always constitutes the background of his canvasses, catering for the wants of a broader audience, seeing days of yore resurrected and the oddness of alien lands. Gérôme had a rare skill in composing this imagery and it is hardly surprising that his paintings were a major inspiration for Hollywood and the first decades of movie making. The image building creation of an antique gladiatorial fight, showing the now famous but historically unrecorded sight of the crowd of spectators giving the thumbs down gesture that recently had inspired Ridley Scott to his colourful “Gladiator” flick. In a way, his admittedly finite imagination and imagery is thus still alive today, thus proving Baudelaire wrong, even if his oeuvre was discarded when Modernity dawned.

Depicted above is Jean-Léon Gérôme's imagination of a “Black Bashi Bazouk“ from 1869, an Ottoman irregular soldier from a formation of the Turkish army especially infamous for their assaults on Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire (cf

An overview of Gérôme’s amazing imagery can be found on

and more about the artist on: