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Jean-Léon Gérôme's sculpture

Jean-Léon Gérôme was interested very early on in sculpture; a number of paintings from 1850-1860 include its representation in their composition.  He had sculpted figurines designed to serve as models.  A decade later, when he began collaborating with his father-in-law, Adolphe Goupil, statuettes were "extracted" from paintings, the first instances of a recurring dialogue between painting and sculpture. They were executed by other artists, sometimes promising young sculptors like Alexandre Falguière (1831–1900) and Antonin Mercié (1845-1916), in this way, “Phryné” and “L’Almée” were produced in bronze and marble.  But it was only in 1878, when he was 54 years old, that Gérôme, now an important figure in the Parisian artistic community, turned to sculpture himself.       

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Sarah Bernhardt, around 1895, tinted marble bust, 69 x 41 x 29 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay.
© RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

An obsession with reality
Gérôme maintained friendly relations with a number of sculptors, particularly Auguste Bartholdi, who accompanied him on his first trip to Egypt in 1855, and Emmanuel Fremiet.  His early sculptures such as “The Gladiators”, eye-catching though they were, were highly reminiscent of Fremiet’s work.  The two men had a great deal in common: a taste for archaeological and historical accuracy – taken to the height of knowledge at that time; the affectionate representation of animals; equestrian statuary, and a great liking for detail. His obsession with reality, or rather its convincing recomposition, thus made the seamless journey from painting to sculpture.  Aided by an effective sense of staging that he had honed through his painted works, Gérôme’s chosen path appeared to some as a somewhat outdated proposal, at a time when Auguste Rodin had begun his inexorable rise and was developing an irrevocable destructuring process in sculpture.  “The Gladiators”, today prisoners of the figure of Gérôme himself at work sculpted after his death by his son-in-law, the artist Aimé Morot, do not deserve such an "execution".  Without having previously modelled any groups larger than life-size, Gérôme manages, to create a real and powerful public monument, where the concern for the documentary serves the effectiveness of the composition remarkably, and proposes a new subject in French sculpture.  But the subtleties of bronze or marble left unworked were probably too restrained for his scholarly curiosity: the liking for the antiquity he had been exploring right from the start certainly pushed Gérôme to take the step towards polychrome sculpture, the final stage of this constant, exhaustive quest for the "true/false" and trompe l’oeil aspect seen so often in his work. 

Ever since Antiquity, sculpture had nearly always been coloured until Academic art deprived it of this element.  The bloodless white of Graeco-Roman marbles, buried for centuries, was established as the aesthetic standard.  Polychromy in sculpture and ancient architecture had aroused fierce debate from the beginning of the 19th century, which only subsided, not without a few convulsive shudders, during the 1880s.  The choice of polychromy was totally obvious for Gérôme: “I first began to colour marbles because I have always been frightened by the coldness of statues if they are left in their natural state once completed.” At the time when Gérôme decided to paint his sculptures, two types of polychromy were defined by historians and used by artists.  "Natural" polychromy – the combination of naturally coloured materials like marble and various patinated bronzes – had found a virtuosic master during the Second Empire, Charles Cordier (1827-1905).  This assemblage polychromy, whose decorative virtues flattered the ever-dominant historicist taste, was ultimately the only one truly accepted by Gérôme’s contemporaries.  He occasionally practised it in often spectacular, technically complex works like “Bellone”.  "Artificial" polychromy – painting marbles with pigmented wax – revived the ancient techniques with varying degrees of success: this was really Gérôme’s most significant contribution to late 19th century sculpture.  A keen follower of the archaeological discoveries of the time, he became interested in the Sarcophagus said to be Alexander's, a valuable piece of evidence of painted Hellenistic sculpture, and a major discovery in Turkey by one of his former students, the Turkish painter and archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910).  Gérôme’s main motivation for polychromy was thus to innovate by reinventing a lost technique, even though it placed him in a marginal position: a paradox for one of the most celebrated artists of his time:  “I have suffered many setbacks for wanting to defy sancrosanct custom and my fellow sculptors have developed a loathing and horror for me, which in fact I don’t mind at all: I didn’t expect such an honour.”  (J.-L. Gérôme to Osman Hamdi Bey, 1893)

Jean-Léon Gérôme Tanagra, 1890, marble polychrome statue, 154.7 x 56 x 57.3 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay.
© RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/René-Gabriel Ojéda

An imaginative personification of the famous ancient city, whose recently discovered production of painted terracotta figurines aroused intense enthusiasm. Exhibited at the 1890 Salon and acquired by the State, it was Gérôme’s first polychrome sculpture manifesto.
Today, the colour has almost entirely faded, and only remains on the statuette held by the figure. As from 1890, Gérôme devoted himself entirely to painted sculpture and representations of his work.  In fact, the game of mirrors initiated in 1878 became more refined and more complex.  Gérôme took his subjects less and less often from his paintings and represented himself more and more at the various stages of creating his sculptures, or invented appealing workshops of Antique painter/sculptors. He also had himself photographed in his workshop with his favourite model.  In a serial, almost obsessive way, Gérôme created numerous versions of this metaphor of himself as a modern Pygmalion.  The portrait, a genre he little practised, found an unexpected revival in sculpture: the bust of Sarah Bernhardt is one of the great – and most striking – masterpieces not only of Gérôme’s polychrome sculpture but also of the French portrait at the end of the 19th century.  The illusionistic quality of the representation found few admirers, and for most critics showed the beginning of the end for the art: “It’s just the opposite to statuary (…) it's the very denial of art.  This waxen figure is close to the horrible effect of a made-up corpse’s flesh” (Gustave Geffroy, 1892).  Gérôme’s "modern" idols, such as “The Woman Boules Player”, are disturbing.  But though apparent imitations of reality bordering on the popular art of Grévin museum waxworks, they keep an erudite distance: while “The Boules Player” offers her troubling flesh to the viewer now become a voyeur, her pose is inspired by a once famous antique statue, the Satyr in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome.  Gérôme’s painted marbles certainly did not attain the ironic radicalism of their wax contemporary, the “Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer” by Degas.  But this "jamming" of aesthetic codes evinced great modernity, paradoxical because of the displacement in time, and in around 1900 took the form of works that eventually led to the first "intellectualised" kitsch. Gérôme, indeed, had always said, “My most important precept is to copy nobody."

Jean-Léon Gérôme. ‘The Story on Show’, exhibition catalogue under the direction of Laurence des Cars, Dominique de Font-Réaulx and Édouard Papet, 374 pp., coedition Musée d’Orsay/Skira-Flammarion.
Price : 49 €.
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