PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED NEW YORK COLLECTION
The extraordinary subject of the present work alludes to a poem of the same name, written by Victor Hugo in 1827 and included in the published collection, Les Orientales. When asked to illustrate a new edition of this volume in 1882, Gérôme chose as the frontispiece a drawing inspired by the concluding verse of the poet’s “La Douleur du Pacha”: “No, no, ‘tis not those dismal figures who/inspire his wretched soul’s remorse/through shadowy visions that gleam with blood./What, then, ails this Pasha, beckoned by war/yet weeping like a woman, vacant and sad?/-his Nubian tiger is dead.” This drawing, a reimagined Lamentation scene, would later become The Grief of the Pasha.
In both The Grief of the Pasha and the present work, Gérôme includes a seated Arab man in an ornate setting. Here, the background architecture derives from the artist’s sketches of the Alhambra, which he visited first in 1873 and again a decade later, and from a cache of photographs in the artist’s collection by Juan Laurent (1816-1892). (In Le tigre et le gardien it is a portion of the Arrayanes courtyard that the artist portrays.) The man – the grieving Pasha of the paintings’ titles – contemplates the dead tiger before him, which lies on a dark blue Oriental rug. (Though the central medallion in the present work suggests that it is a prayer rug, the peculiar cruciform-shape of the stylized motif defies convention.) The man is positioned closer to his beloved pet in the present work than in the larger version, and wears markedly different clothing. Indeed, he is outfitted in the colorful dress of a nineteenth-century Cairo soldier, recorded by Gérôme in several of his most celebrated works; the man’s pink satin sleeves, burgundy salvars, and distinctively wrapped turban are rendered with an ethnographer’s accuracy, as are the pair of ornately carved and decorated flintlock pistols tucked into his belt. (An Ottoman saber, or yatagan, is also visible at his waist.) The benign presence of these weapons is a poignant reminder of the tiger’s erstwhile danger, as well as the waning power of the once ferocious Ottoman Empire. The eclecticism of this work – from Spain to India to Egypt – and the unexpected profundity of its message were typical of Gérôme, who often combined meticulously observed ethnographic and architectural details into a single, seamless, and remarkably compelling whole.
The subject of this work follows a broader, longstanding tradition in Orientalist painting as well. In the early 1830s, Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) had accompanied his friend Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, in order to sketch the newest addition to their menagerie – a Bengal tiger from India. These studies served Delacroix well in a series of vigorous oil paintings created soon after his transformative journey to North Africa, in which tigers are portrayed in the midst of struggle or strife (see The Tiger Hunt, circa 1854, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Wealthy European collectors found much to admire in these vaguely Orientalist works, including a heightening of emotion, a pleasurable frisson, and a momentary escape from their modern urban lives.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Gérôme created his own, highly successful series of pictures of lions, tigers, and leopards in varying sizes and qualities to suit nearly every taste and economic class. (Like Delacroix, Gérôme made studies in his youth at the Jardin des Plantes, which aided him in this endeavor. For some of the many examples of Gérôme’s tiger series, see Ackerman, 1986, pp 226, 248, 300-1, and passim, plates 191, 300, 537-9, and passim.) Gérôme took particular delight in depicting tigers in the desert, watchfully eyeing advancing troops or running full-tilt towards some unseen prey, or, occasionally, in death, tragically sprawled on the marble floors of a Pasha’s palace, as here, or, equally tragically, wrapped around the shoulders of a pelt merchant in Cairo. The tension between the wild and the tamed, the power of nature and the power of man, and the parallels drawn between the tiger on the prowl and military marauders in foreign lands, seems to have been a resonant theme for this artist, and for contemporary audiences as well.
This catalogue note was written by Dr. Emily M. Weeks.
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