Following his trip to Bursa in Turkey in 1879, Gérôme produced a number of bath scene paintings, culminating in his most famous work of the series, The Great Bath at Bursa, sold in these rooms on 15 June 2004. The present evocation of ladies lounging around a hot pool in a Turkish bath depicts two girls, one half emerged in the water, the other seated on a basket sponging herself down - in conversation in the foreground. In the background, another group of robed women converse in one of the wall niches. Dappled sunlight animates the dark room from the narrow windows high up in the wall and outside the picture plane.
The scene is presumably set in the caldarium in Yeni Kaplica, Bursa's 'New Baths' built in 1552. Bursa had been the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. By the time the present work was executed, Gérôme had moved away from heroic history painting towards archeological accuracy and objective realism. That is not to say that he adhered to Courbet's transitory school of Realism - the poses and finish of Gérôme's nudes remain grounded in academic idealism - but rather that he paid greater attention to the ensemble; he studied the relation of the figures to their surroundings, to the floors and to the walls and accessories around them.
The room is in a real building depicted as it looked during Gérôme's lifetime, and the activities of the women are as close to everyday life as Gérôme could imagine. The nudes are carefully studied, well placed, delightfully posed and painted. It seems likely that Gérôme, working in the bath on Men's Day, naturally, observed the casual society of the male bathers around him in the warm, steamy space. Their relaxed deportment gave him a clue as to the behaviour of the women on their day. Fréderic Masson records an entertaining account by Gérôme (probably in a letter) of this experience:
'During a stay in Bursa, I was taken by the architecture of the baths, and they certainly offered a chance to study nudes. It wasn't just a question of going to see what was going on inside, and of replacing [some men by some women], I had to have a sketch of this interior; and since the temperature inside was rather high, I didn't hesitate to sketch in the simple apparel of a beauty just aroused from her sleep—that is, in the buff. Sitting on my tripod, my paint box on my knees, my palette in my hand, I was a little grotesque, but you have to know how to adapt yourself as necessary. I had the idea of painting my portrait in this costume, but I dropped it, fearing that my image (dal vero) might get me too much attraction and launch me in a career as a Don Juan' (Frédéric Masson, 'J.L. Gérôme. Notes et fragments des souvenirs inédits du maître', Les Arts, 1902, p. 30).
The subject of Femmes au bain was not uncommon in nineteenth-century painting; Delacroix, Ingres and Chassériau had already received critical acclaim for their various nudes set in Turkish interiors. Ingres' famous rendering of this subject in 1862 is an exotic fantasy of voluptuous flesh and writhing bodies. In contrast with this, the composition of Femmes au bain seems devoid of lasciviousness or even the mildest evocation of eroticism: the nudes are not shown as examples of primitive sensuality as is the tradition in depicting bath scenes; they do not writhe and pose in erotic deprivation or anticipation; they are simply engaged in the social activity of spending the day at the bath.
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