In the final decade of his career, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s paintings fell from favour, displaced by Impressionism and the modern styles which he had long opposed. He remained resolutely realist and academic, and turned to religious narratives.
Around 1895, Gérôme painted a series of eight works in grisaille which told stories from the Bible. One of the few survivors from these is The Disobedient Prophet, which tells an obscure story from the first book of Kings (chapter 13) in the Old Testament. This is by no means the only visual account of this story, but is unusual among religious paintings.
Following Jeroboam’s idolatry at Bethel, God commands that no one shall eat bread or drink water there, and must not return by the way that they came. When a prophet disobeys God’s command, he is given to a lion, which kills him and leaves his body on the road, with his donkey unharmed beside him. He is found there, as shown in this painting.
A couple of years later, Gérôme painted the event which classically marks the start of Christ’s Passion, The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1897). According to all four gospels, Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives, and as he proceeded towards Jerusalem, crowds laid their clothes on the ground to welcome his triumphal entry into the city.
Aside from being one of the major events in the Passion to be shown in paintings, for Gérôme this may have had another reading. But a few years before, his paintings were being welcomed by throngs at the Salon, and commanded huge sums when sold. A short time later, his work was largely ignored, and he may have seen himself as being prepared for a public crucifixion.
Moses on Mount Sinai (1895-99) shows a well-known episode during the forty years in which the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, following their exodus from slavery in Egypt. Moses their leader went up to the top of Mount Sinai to be given the ten commandments by God, during which the Israelites fashioned a graven image of a golden calf for their worship.
This is probably Gérôme’s last spectacle of his career: vast in its scope, and equally dramatic in its importance for the Israelites.
Gérôme may have been influenced by the writings of the scholar Charles Beke, who in 1873 proposed that what the book of Exodus referred to as Mount Sinai was actually a volcano. Controversy over its real location continues.
Then, in about 1902, Gérôme returned to his series of paintings of himself as a sculptor. His Self-Portrait Painting The Ball Player is a fascinating variation of the traditional form of self-portrait, in that he is here applying the colour to one of his polychromatic sculptures, a figure of a ball player, who closely resembles those seen earlier in his paintings of sculptures, including Pygmalion and Galatea.
His final visit to the martyrdom of Christians in classical Roman times, Removal of the Big Cats from 1902, is now considered to be in execrable taste, but I think is being misread. Unlike some other nineteenth century history painters, Gérôme had showed no tendency to mawkishness, nor predilection for gore.
This painting shows the wild beasts – Gérôme’s favourite ‘big cats’ in particular, which he painted in many of his Orientalist works – being herded back into the bowels of the Colosseum. The remnants of the crowd are making their way out, and the incinerated or dismembered bodies of martyrs are left behind.
It is, for all the blood in the sand, the logical conclusion to Gérôme’s series of works showing Roman spectacles, from their earliest beginning with his Cock Fight of 1846. For all those who enjoyed the earlier ‘sport’, it is also a grim reminder of the eventual outcome.
The last narrative painting which is securely attributed to Gérôme is a little joke of his which proved to be his greatest influence on twentieth century art: his Optician’s Sign from 1902. This plays on the French term opticien, and chien, the French for dog. He apparently entered this in a competition. Years later, is was seized upon by Surrealists, and proved an inspiration for several of them.
Given Gérôme’s career-long fascination with the truth and accuracy of images, this might have been an ideal work with which to end his painting. But there is one more narrative work, which may have been painted by those working in his studio, but must have come from Gérôme’s inner vision: 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 Gérôme’s 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 beast.
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 amiable towards Androcles. They became firm 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, recalling Gérôme’s earlier paintings of such scenes. The day came that Androcles was put in the arena, but when his lion was released, he turned out to be the same who Androcles had been so friendly with. Instead of the lion killing Androcles, they showed their friendship. When he explained how this came about, Androcles was made a free man, and took the lion as his pet.
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.
Perhaps Gérôme’s career had a happy ending after all.
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.