In December 1870, archeological excavations at a site called Tanagra in Boetia, modern day Greece, unearthed a group of Hellenistic terracotta funerary figurines bearing large traces of original polychromy. The discovery caused a sensation as it provided firm evidence in support of the theory, now gaining general acceptance, that antique sculpture was painted. In 1878, the 'Tanagra Figures,' as they came to be known, were brought to Paris and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, where they fascinated the French public, both due to their richly coloured surfaces and also because they were viewed as a possible link to the lost works of Praxiteles. The cultural impact of the discovery of the figures can be observed in the countless forgeries, which flooded the art market, as well as in the many references to them in late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature, from Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband to Marcel Proust's The Way by Swann's.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, following in the footsteps of his teacher, the painter Paul Delaroche, had demonstrated, from early in his career, a profound interest in the antique and a desire to represent the Classical world. The lure of the antique had manifested itself in his first painting to be exhibited at the Salon, The Cock Fight (1846), as well as in later successes including Pollice Verso and his first work of sculpture, The Gladiators, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1878, the same year that the discoveries from Tanagra were unveiled in Paris. Gérôme's decision to adopt the Tanagra Figure as the subject for what has been described as 'his first real sculpture of his second artistic maturity,' was therefore a natural one, which provided him with the opportunity to combine his interest in antiquity with an exploration of the polychromy of sculpture.
In 1890, Gérôme exhibited the marble version of his Tanagra at the Paris Salon. The figure that was presented had skin painted with warm flesh tones, brown hair, pink lips and blue eyes. Inspired by the painted Hellenistic figurines, Gérôme had combined the mediums of painting and sculpture with the effect of creating a new and unique kind of realism. The importance with which Gérôme viewed this sculpture is evidenced by the fact that he employed two agents to search the Appenines for two years for the perfect marble. In the present bronze version of Tanagra, Gérôme explores the relationship between sculpture and colour through the use of striking contrasts in the patination, from the dazzling gilt bronze patina of the body, to the dark brown patina of the base. Such powerful manipulation of patination is testament to the centrality of colour in Gérôme's sculptural oeuvre.
Gérôme's Tanagra offers itself as the tyche or spirit of the ancient Boetian city which bears the same name. She sits on a pile of earth and rock as if just uncovered after two thousand years of being buried. The tools at her feet are a reminder of the archeological process, as well as alluding to Gérôme's role as sculptor. Gérôme's attempts at linking the sculpture and the Hoop Dancer she holds to the ancient world (and in the process drawing a parallel between himself and the sculptors of antiquity) reach their conclusion with his Sculpturae Vitam Insufflat Pictura, in which a girl paints a series of twelve casts of Gérôme's Hoop Dancer, as if the model had been designed in antiquity.
Despite being presented as an antique sculpture, however, Tanagra has been said to have more in common with the studio than with ancient Greece and has been described as a 'generous nude, with the face of a late nineteenth-century Parisienne.' Indeed, according to the curators of the recent exhibition, The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme, the figure presented to the viewer is that of one of his models, named Emma, who can be seen in Gérôme's 1895 canvas, The Artist's Model, seated beside the marble as the sculptor works. It is possible that the figure's resemblance to contemporary women represents a deliberate choice on the part of Gérôme. Discussing Tanagra Figures in 1899, the Classical scholar, Théodore Reinach, commented that, 'Always elegant but never affected, always in motion but never in a hurry, the Tanagra lady is truly the Parisienne of antiquity.' In Gérôme's Tanagra, antique sculpture converges with the aesthetic of the modern nineteenth-century Parisian woman to create arguably the most successful and highly regarded sculpture of the artist's oeuvre.
Laurence des Cars, Dominique de Font-Réaulx and Édouard Papet (eds.), The Spectacular Art Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), exh. cat. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Milan, 2010, pp. 291-303; V. Jeammet and J. M. Fossey (eds.), Tanagra. Mythe et archéologie, exh. cat. Musée du Louvre, Paris and Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Montréal, 2003, nos. 1, 2 & 3, pp. 48-53; G. M. Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme with a Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1986, p. 136; R. Panzanelli (ed.), The Color of Life. Polychrome in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present, exh. cat. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, 2008, no. 35, pp. 166-168; Jean-Léon Gérôme and the Classical Imagination, Pamphlet, Dahesh Museum, 1996
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