The present work is one of a group of oil sketches Gérôme completed during trips to North Africa (mainly Egypt), the Sinai, and Palestine from the 1860s through the 1870s. Several of the sketches were used as motifs for compositions that Gérôme later painted in his Paris studio. Each of these sketches is executed on a small canvas, a convenient size to carry along the artist's recurrent itinerary, which followed the classic grand tour of most Western visitors to the Orient. These were elaborate affairs, with many camels, horses and friends joining Gérôme. Many of his comrades—in diaries, letters and articles—remarked how eager Gérôme was to sketch at any opportunity. Baalbek was an easy source of inspiration for artists and tourists alike who flocked to the well publicized area from the 1860s, eager to experience the adventure and romance of the Arabic lands. Located in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Baalbek is famous for its well preserved, monumental Roman ruins of temples built for Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus –- constructed when the area was known as Heliopolis, one of the largest sanctuaries of the Empire (and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984). Such a brilliant architectural feat, begun in the last quarter of the 1st century B.C. and rising in the desert so far away from the civilization of Rome, lent a mysterious air to the site. As Gérôme depicts, the Roman construction was built on top of earlier ruins, and involved the creation of a gigantic raised plaza on which the "new" temples were placed. Great retaining walls consisting of a number of massive monoliths held the plaza's north and south sides, with the western wall having a second group of monoliths including the famous trilithon, a row of three stones said to measure 800 tons each. Conflicting theories as to the site's construction have long been debated: from the scientific (a series of Roman cranes and levers) to the more mystical. Yet the incredible weight, precise cut, and height of the temple columns (the six remaining of the Temple of Jupiter are seen at the left of the present work) defy any single explanation. Though not intended as an individual work of art, the accurate colors, forms, and finished quality of Gérôme's sketch accurately describe the landmark site as well as its less tangible, mythologized presence.
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