The Story in Paintings: Jean-Léon Gérôme and the spectacular

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Artist's Model (1895), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 39.6 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Largely forgotten until revived recently, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) was the most popular painter of the Salon and the art market during the period that the Impressionists were active, and rejecting the Salon.

A realist whose style has been dubbed Néo-Grec (Neo-Greek), many of his most popular works showed scenes of the spectacular. His recent revival has been driven in part by re-evaluation of his works, which now reveals that many of his paintings (and sculptures) were not just playing to the gallery.

He was a pupil of Paul Delaroche, so I will start with the latter’s most famous narrative painting before looking at a selection of Gérôme’s works.

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)

England in 1553 was in turmoil. King Edward VI’s reign of six years was marred by economic problems, social unrest which erupted into open rebellion, and war with Scotland; these had culminated with the King’s death at the age of just 15.

There was dispute over who should succeed him, as he had no natural heirs, but he had drawn up a plan for a cousin, Lady Jane Grey, to become Queen. Her rule started on 10 July 1553, but King Edward’s half sister Mary deposed her on 19 July. She was committed to the Tower of London, convicted of high treason in November 1553, and executed on Tower Green by beheading on 12 February 1554 at the age of just 16 (or 17).

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), oil on canvas, 246 x 297 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery, bequeathed by the Second Lord Cheylesmore, 1902.

Lady Jane Grey and the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Bridges, take the centre of the canvas. She is blindfolded, the rest of her face almost expressionless. As she can no longer see, the Lieutenant is guiding her towards the executioner’s block, in front of her. Her arms are outstretched, hands with fingers spread in their quest for the block. Under the block, straw has been placed to take up her blood.

At the right, the executioner stands high and coldly detached, his left hand holding the haft of the axe which he will shortly use to kill the young woman. Coils of rope hang from his waist, ready to tie his victim down if necessary. At the left, two of Lady Jane Grey’s attendants or family are resigned in their grief.

Lady Jane Grey wears a silver-white gown which dominates the entire painting, forcing everything and everyone else back into sombre mid tones and darker.

Delaroche appears to have made an accurate depiction of the scene, but in fact he made one major alteration: Lady Jane Grey was actually executed in the small court-like space within the Tower known as Tower Green, and not in a dark room.

Although he has little scope to use facial expression, body language is very important, and there are numerous cues to the original narrative. The painting is charged in atmosphere by its plain composition, and by the radiance of Lady Jane Grey’s gown. This painting caused a sensation at the Salon of 1834, where it was first exhibited.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904)

The Duel After the Ball (1857-9)

On leaving a masked (fancy dress) ball in the winter of 1856-7, an elected official and a former police commissioner fought a duel in a copse in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris. One was dressed as the character Pierrot, the other as Harlequin. Pierrot was wounded as a result, and the incident became notorious because of the personalities involved, and their comic costumes.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Duel After the Ball (1857-9), oil on canvas, 39.1 x 56.3 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierrot leans, as white as his costume, collapsed against one of his team, his face suggesting shock if not imminent death from a wound bleeding onto his chest. His limp right arm still bears his sword, which now drags on the ground. Two other friends are visibly distressed at his condition and trying to console him.

Harlequin, with his second, walks off towards the distance at the right. His sword is abandoned on the snowy ground, near four feathers which have dropped from the American Indian headdress of his second. In the murky distance there is a hackney cab, ready to take the combatants away, and a couple walking along the edge of the copse.

Gérôme uses the full range of conventional narrative techniques, with strong cues to the original story. He stages it theatrically, with the absurd grim humour of the participants’ costumes, making it intensely effective. Exhibited at the 1857 Salon, this became one of the most widely reproduced paintings of its time, although his rival Thomas Couture was upset that his more academic version of the incident was largely ignored.

Phryné before the Areopagus (1861)

Phryne or Phryné was the nickname of a famous hetaera (courtesan or prostitute) in Ancient Greece. Born about 371 BCE, she was accused of impiety by profaning the sacred Eleusinian Mysteries. When she was brought to trial before the Areopagus, which functioned as the court of appeal, her defence removed her robe and bared her breasts to arouse their pity.

Her beauty filled the judges with fear, that they could not condemn a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite, and she was acquitted out of pity. There are different accounts of her trial, some which deny her breasts being bared before the judges, but this painting is based on the account by Athenaeus.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Phryné before the Areopagus (1861), oil on canvas, 80 x 128 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Phryne is shown to the left of the centre, in the midst of the semicircular court, completely naked apart from some jewellery on her neck and wrists, and her sandals. She is turned away from the gaze of the judges, her eyes hidden in the crook of her right elbow, as if in shame and modesty.

Behind her (to the left), her defence has just removed her blue robes with a flourish, his hands holding them high. The judges, their chests bare, but wearing uniform scarlet robes, are taken aback. Some have faces of pure fright, others anguish or grief, or disbelief. Most have raised their arms in a variety of anxious gestures.

Gérôme tells this narrative almost solely using facial expression and body language, to show the emotional dialogue taking place between Phryne, her defence, and the judges. Although one or two of the expressions appear a little exaggerated and melodramatic, the painting succeeds, and its story is clearly told.

Superficially, it is easy to suggest that Gérôme was using Phryne’s nakedness to appeal to the lowest desires, which remained one of the popular attractions of the annual Salon. However it is more likely that this is a statement about attitudes to the nude female form and the judgement of the Salon. Manet’s Olympia was rejected by the Salon just two years later (1863).

Cleopatra before Caesar (1866)

Cleopatra VII Philopator, known as Queen Cleopatra, was the last active pharoah of Ptolemaic Egypt, ruling from 51 to 30 BCE. For much of this period she ruled jointly with relatives; in 51 BCE, when she was ruling with her ten year-old brother Ptolemy XIII, they fell out, and she tried to rule alone.

In 47 BCE, she took advantage of Julius Caesar’s anger towards her brother by having herself smuggled into Caesar’s palace in Egypt, so that should could meet with Caesar. Although she was probably taken in while inside a large bag, this has traditionally been described instead as being inside a large roll of carpet. She became Caesar’s mistress, bearing him a son, and convincing Caesar to fight and defeat Ptolemy’s army at the Battle of the Nile, restoring Cleopatra to her throne.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Cleopatra before Caesar (1866), oil on canvas, 183 x 129.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Cleopatra is stood at the edge of the carpet from which she has just emerged, dressed (or undressed) for seduction. She looks at Caesar, her expression hard to read because of its angle of view. Her breasts are exposed below an elaborate Egyptian jewellery collar, and wispy veils hang from a belt-like girdle slung from her hips. A slave cowers behind and to the right of her.

Caesar is seen working at his desk, looking up at Cleopatra, his hands held out as if trying to regain control of the situation. Behind Cleopatra several men, presumably Caesar’s counsel, are sat at a table.

Gérôme uses the classical combination of expression, body language, and obvious cues such as the carpet, to link well with the text narrative.

The Death of Marshal Ney (1868)

Michel Ney (1769-1815) was a leading military commander during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and was made a Marshal of France by Napoleon. Following Napoleon’s defeat and exile in the summer of 1815, Ney was arrested, and tried for treason by the Chamber of Peers. He was found guilty, and executed by firing squad near the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris on 7 December 1815. He refused a blindfold, and was allowed to give the command to fire upon himself.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Death of Marshal Ney (1868), oil on canvas, 64.1 x 104.1 cm, Sheffield Gallery, Sheffield, England. Photo from Militärhistoria 4/2015, via Wikimedia Commons.

Unusually for Gérôme’s narrative paintings, on this occasion he has chosen to show the scene just after the climax of the story. Ney’s body is abandoned, slumped and lifeless on the muddy ground, his top hat apart at the right edge of the canvas. Behind where he stood but a few moments ago, there are half a dozen impact marks on the wall, from bullets. The firing squad is being marched off, to the left and into the distance.

No face is clearly visible, and body language is minimal. Gérôme here achieves his narrative using composition, and cues such as the bullet marks, alone. Instead of the tense horror of the shots about to be fired, or being fired, (as used by Manet and Goya, for example), he opts for this cold, bleak, heartless execution, which is grimly effective.

Pollice Verso (1872)

The narrative here is extremely simple: when a Roman gladiator – here a murmillo wielding sword and shield – gets another – here a retiarius wielding net and trident – in the position that the former can administer a fatal strike, the potential victor looks towards the crowd, for direction. If they show the thumbs up, the life of the vanquished is spared; if the thumbs point down, pollice verso, then the victor can proceed and kill the vanquished.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Pollice Verso (1872), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 149.2 cm, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ. Wikimedia Commons.

In this, one of Gérôme’s most spectacular paintings of spectacle, its bright colours and fine details make it almost super-real. Although supported by a rich array of facial expressions from the crowd, this painting is about body language, specifically the simple gesture of pointing the thumb downwards. There are of course abundant cues, in the details of the gladiator’s armour and equipment, Caesar’s imperial throne and box, and much more. But here the story is centred on a hand gesture, and its consequences for the retiarius on the ground.

The Tulip Folly (1882)

The tulip flower was originally imported from Turkey, and became extremely popular in the Netherlands during the early 1600s. The Dutch cultivated them to produce varieties of different colours, petal and leaf patterns, and these became associated with wealth and status.

By 1634, the value of tulips had become very high, out of all proportion to their real worth. Certain varieties in particular became highly sought-after, and the subject of financial speculation. Eventually the bubble burst, prices collapsed, and paper fortunes vanished almost overnight. This resulted in a credit crisis and national financial problems.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Tulip Folly (1882), oil on canvas, 65.4 x 100 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Gérôme’s unusual narrative is told quite simply, and in the absence of facial expressions. One group of (government) soldiers are shown in the middle distance, destroying beds of tulips, presumably in a move to manipulate the market. In the foreground, a soldier of a different group (probably an officer, given his fine ruff) stands guard over a pot containing a single rare variety of tulip. His sword is drawn ready, although pointing at the ground just by his valuable plant.

This choice of narrative must have had contemporary significance. It has been suggested that it may refer to the economic crash of 1873, the first international recession resulting from market speculation, or perhaps in irony to the high value of Gérôme’s paintings when it was painted in 1882.

Bathsheba (1889/95)

The Biblical story of Bathsheba is one of the more sordid of its histories. King David lusted after Bathsheba, a gentlewoman of fine birth who was married to one of David’s generals. Having made her pregnant adulterously, David first tried to make it appear that the unborn child had been conceived in wedlock, then when that failed he put Bathsheba’s husband into danger in battle, so that he was killed, and David became able to marry her as a widow.

David first developed his lust for Bathsheba when he saw her bathing on the roof of her house, which became a popular motif for paintings. However, Rembrandt chose a very different scene for his Bathsheba with King David’s Letter of 1654.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Bathsheba with King David's Letter (1654), oil on canvas, 142 x 142 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (1654), oil on canvas, 142 x 142 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Bathsheba (1889/95), oil on canvas, 100 x 61 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Gérôme, who was surely aware of Rembrandt’s and other famous versions of this narrative, perhaps predictably opted to give us David’s view of Bathsheba, washing herself, naked in the small garden on her roof. Bathsheba has her back turned to the viewer, and is washing her left elbow with her right hand. Her face is barely visible, but her body obviously highly desirable to David. A servant is by Bathsheba’s feet, helping her bathe. Bathsheba’s clothes are piled loosely to her right, on a small stool. Behind them stretches the city, bathed in warm light.

There are none of the subtleties or emotional complexities of Rembrandt here, and the story appears to have been shown quite faithfully to the original. Gérôme dodges the many moral and other higher issues, and tells it plain and simple.

The Artist’s Model (1895)

Gérôme took to sculpture in 1878, when he was 55. This is an unusual narrative self-portrait, showing him at work on his marble figure Tanagra (1890), currently in the Musée d’Orsay, and inspired by secret excavations near Tanagra, Boeotia, Central Greece, in 1870. These had revealed antique polychromy figures which had suddenly become all the rage with collectors. This shows his model, Emma.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Artist’s Model (1895), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 39.6 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

This is a very unusual painting, one of several which Gérôme made of models with sculpted figures. Body language and the many visual cues placed around the painting are key, there being little scope for facial expression. The main participants – Emma, his model, Gérôme himself, and his marble sculpture – are central, and carefully arranged. Scattered at the edges of the floor are reminders of gladiatoral armour, and other props used for his paintings, together with one of his polychrome sculptures of a woman with a hoop, at the right edge.

Androcles (c 1902)

The story of Androcles (or Androclus) and the Lion was first recorded by Aulus Gellius and attributed to Apion, claimed to be a true account, but has become widespread in European folk tales. It was turned into the successful and still popular play Androcles and the Lion by George Bernard Shaw, but that was not published for a decade after this painting.

Androcles was a slave in Rome, with a mean master, so he decided to run away. Hiding in the woods, he became short of food, and weak. One night a lion came into the cave in which Androcles was sheltering. The lion was roaring, and scared Androcles, who thought that he was about to be eaten by the lion. But it was clear that the lion had a very painful foot; eventually Androcles plucked up the courage to look at the animal’s foot, from which he extracted a large thorn (or splinter of wood). The lion was overjoyed and very friendly towards Androcles. They became friends, and the lion brought Androcles food, to build up his strength.

One day soldiers were passing, and found Androcles. They returned him to Rome, where the law prescribed that such runaway slaves were to be put in the arena with a hungry lion. The day came that Androcles was put in the arena, but when his lion was released, he turned out to be the same lion who Androcles had been so friendly with. Instead of the lion killing Androcles, they showed their friendship. When he had explained how this came about, Androcles was made a free man, and took the lion as his pet.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Androcles (c 1902), oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm, National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gérôme shows the salient event in the first part of this story, in which Androcles extracts the thorn or splinter from the lion’s paw. With Androcles’ face angled towards the paw, the only expression available is that of the lion, which Gérôme uses to great effect, in expressing its agony and distress. You don’t have to know anything about lions to see that.

Androcles is shown working carefully to extract the object, almost surrounded by the lion’s substantial body. This is all faithful to the story, and cued in with it very well.


Several, perhaps many, of Gérôme’s narrative paintings are of spectacular events. He is adept in his use of classical narrative techniques, including facial expression, body language, and cues to details within the original story. Unlike the contemporary Pre-Raphaelites, his paintings are often full of action, and sometimes donwright thrilling.

However, looking beyond such superficial matters, his narratives often appear to have deeper significance. Their re-examination is more than justified.


de Cars L et al. (2010) The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Skira. ISBN 978 8 85 720702 5.