Too Real: the narrative paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, 2

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Ave Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant (1859), oil on canvas, 92.5 x 145 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. The Athenaeum.

By the end of the Paris Salon of 1853, the young Gérôme had cause to celebrate. He was receiving good reviews, and his lightweight, amusing narrative paintings were going down well with the public. As the acknowledged leader of the small group of ‘Néo-Grecs’, he now needed a few more successes at the Salon.

He had a little money, and in late 1853 set off for Austria, central Europe and Moscow, but the Crimean War forced him to alter his plans and not travel as far afield as he had hoped. Instead, he followed the River Danube and the coast of the Black Sea down to Istanbul. With the Exposition Universelle coming up in 1855, he needed some paintings which would impress a more international public.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Allegory of Night (1853), oil on canvas, 228 cm diam tondo, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

One delightful tondo which he painted during 1853, and which was lost for some years, is this Allegory of Night. Three winged putti bring together some of the classical symbols of night and sleep: that on the right, for example, is scattering sleep-inducing poppies, as in Virgil’s words in Book 4 of his Aeneid. This is the sort of painting which could win him valuable commissions for wall paintings, perhaps – just the sort of work which was becoming available with Napoleon III in power.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Leap of Marcus Curtius (c 1850-1855), oil on canvas, 53.3 x 55.2 cm, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA. The Athenaeum.

The Leap of Marcus Curtius (c 1850-1855) depicts a short and not too demanding legend of a hero of classical Rome. Following an earthquake (now dated to 362 BCE), a great bottomless pit opened up in the middle of the Forum. Attempts to fill it were unsuccessful, so an augur was consulted, who responded that the gods demanded the most precious possession of the state.

Marcus Curtius was a young soldier who proclaimed that arms and the courage of Romans were the state’s most precious possessions. In a moment of great self-sacrifice, he then rode into the pit in his finest armour, astride his charger – the moment that Gérôme shows. As he and his horse fell into its abyss, the chasm closed over him, and the city was saved.

Gérôme captures the stirring scene well, and makes its underlying patriotic moral clear: self-sacrifice may be necessary for the State.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ (study) (c 1855), oil on canvas, 37.1 x 55.2 cm, J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of J Paul Getty Museum.

Less successful was his vast and ambitious The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ, of which this is the study, painted in about 1855. The emperor sits on his throne, overseeing a huge gathering of people from all over the Roman Empire. Grouped in the foreground in a quotation from a traditional nativity is the Holy Family, whose infant son was to transform the empire in the centuries to come.

Gérôme had based this on a synthesised history dating back to Jacques-Bénignes Bosquet in 1681, but its grand spectacle failed to captivate the critics or the crowds at the Exposition Universelle.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Recreation in a Russian Camp, Remembering Moldavia (1855), oil on canvas, 59.5 x 101.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Instead, and perhaps mindful of the recent war in the Crimea, Gérôme’s more modest late entry of Recreation in a Russian Camp, Remembering Moldavia (1855) was much better received. The artist claimed to have witnessed this scene when travelling down the River Danube: a group of Russian soldiers in low spirits is being uplifted by making music, under the direction of their superior.

Gérôme has here captured an atmosphere which few of his paintings achieved. The marvellous light of the sky, the skein of geese on the wing, and the parade of windmills in the distance all draw together with the soldiers in their sombre greatcoats.

Overall, though, the Exposition Universelle had been a success for Gérôme, bringing him a Second Class medal from its jury, and later that year admission to the Legion of Honour. Soon afterwards, Gérôme left France to travel extensively in North Africa and the Middle East, and didn’t return until the Spring of 1856. He then submitted five paintings from ‘the Orient’ and two others to the Salon in 1857.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert (1857), oil on canvas, 61.9 x 106 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

One of the works resulting from his travels, Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert (1857) shows a group of new recruits struggling through desperate conditions in the heat of the desert, referring back, perhaps, to his Russian soldiers.

From here on, a substantial proportion of Gérôme’s paintings are ‘Orientalist’; these are deeply mired in controversy, and have been ever since critics tackled them in the nineteenth century. I do not propose showing any of them, except those in which narrative is significant.

Gérôme’s success of the Salon in 1857 was The Duel After the Ball, the very antithesis of The Age of Augustus, with its contemporary anecdotal narrative and slapstick humour.

If the story is to be believed, 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 (copy) (1857), 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 into 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, referring to the comedy of Pierrot and Harlequin, making it intensely effective. This rapidly became one of the most widely reproduced paintings of its time, although Gérôme’s rival Thomas Couture was upset that his more academic version of the incident was largely ignored.

Gérôme was now an ideal candidate for a longer-term contract for reproductions of his paintings, and in 1859 made such an arrangement with Adolphe Goupil, whose galleries were to represent him and his work, most importantly promoting it in the growing US market. But at home he was coming under fire for succumbing to genre painting and anecdote, rather than keeping to the great tradition of history painting.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Ave Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant (1859), oil on canvas, 92.5 x 145 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. The Athenaeum.

Gérôme’s response was to go back to three classical themes. Here, in Ave Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant (1859), it is the spectacle of the Colosseum in Rome.

Its story is simple, going no deeper than a translation of its title: Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you. A group of gladiators clustered in front of Caesar are just about to join the bodies of the last ones, who are still being dragged away by slaves. Some consternation was raised in Gérôme’s depiction of the Vestal Virgins – carefully positioned between the gladiators and Caesar – watching and enjoying such a depraved spectacle.

Despite its popular appeal, there is more to Ave Caesar than its expansive view and the roar of the crowd. The viewer is, as in so many of Gérôme’s paintings, not only looking at the spectacle, but also at those looking at the spectacle, ultimately themselves. This painting was so successful that Goupil continued to sell reproductions of it, some as small as a calling card, for the next fifty years.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), King Candaules (1859), oil on canvas, 67.3 x 99 cm, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico. The Athenaeum.

The second classical theme was the strange legend of King Candaules (1859), which has been painted by several artists over the centuries, and can usually be relied on to raise controversy.

According to legend, King Candaules of Lydia boasted of the beauty of his wife, Nyssia, to the chief of his personal guard, Gyges. To support his boast, the king showed his wife to Gyges by stealth, naked as she was preparing for bed. When she discovered Gyges’ voyeurism, Nyssia gave him the choice of being executed, or of murdering the king. Opting for the latter, Gyges stabbed the king to death when he was in bed, then married Nyssia and succeeded Candaules on the throne.

Gérôme was probably aware of William Etty’s painting of the story from 1830, but would not have been aware that Edgar Degas had started and abandoned his version in 1855. Each chose to show the moment that Nyssia removed the last item of her clothing, which is prior to the climax or moment of peripeteia.

The king is in his bed, awaiting his wife, who has just removed the last of her clothing as she spots the dark and hooded figure of Gyges watching her from the open door. Gérôme’s love of detail in the decor saves this from the accusation that, like Etty’s, it was just another excuse for a full-length nude. However, neither Gérôme nor any of the previous artists who had depicted this story ever managed to provide clues as to its eventual outcome.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Dead Caesar (c 1859), graphite, 16.7 x 32.6 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The Athenaeum.

The third of Gérôme’s more traditional history paintings was the largest that he showed at the Salon of 1859, and one which attracted the open praise of Charles Baudelaire. Unfortunately it is one of Gérôme’s major works which has since vanished, its only traces being a monochrome photograph, and this graphite study of The Dead Caesar from about 1859. I will consider these in detail when I cover his second version of this motif completed in 1867, later in this series.


Ackerman GM (2000) Jean-Léon Gérôme, Monographie révisée, Catalogue Raisonné Mis à Jour, (in French) ACR Édition. ISBN 978 2 867 70137 5.
Scott Allan and Mary Morton, eds. (2010) Reconsidering Gérôme, Getty. ISBN 978 1 6060 6038 4.
Gülru Çakmak (2017) Jean-Léon Gérôme and the Crisis of History Painting in the 1850s, Liverpool UP. ISBN 978 1 78694 067 4.
de Cars L et al. (2010) The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Skira. ISBN 978 8 85 720702 5.