Though best known as an Orientalist artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme remained committed to classical subject matter throughout his long and prolific career. In the 1840s Gérôme was the acknowledged leader of a group of young painters studying with Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) and Charles Gleyre (1808-1874) in Paris. Inspired by the historical reconstructions of these two academic masters, as well as by Greek art and the recent discoveries of frescoes at Pompeii and Herculaneum (sites that Gérôme himself visited during his extensive international travels), these so-called Néo-grecs or Pompëistes painted antique genre scenes with a salacious or humorous touch. Such subjects were particularly appealing to Gérôme, whose love of drama, theater, and gesture was matched only by his passion for archaeological research and accuracy. In the present series of four paintings, offered together for the first time in over sixty years, these qualities help to animate and authenticate the poignant story that unfolds.
The paintings illustrate a subject from the third ode of the sixth-century BCE Greek poet Anacreon, who had already appeared once in Gérôme’s evolving and revolving oeuvre (fig. 1). In 1848, the artist had exhibited his Anacreon, Bacchus, and Love, commissioned by the state and now at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, to great fanfare and contemporary remark. (This painting came on the heels of Gérôme’s 1847 Néo-grec masterpiece Le Combat de Coqs, Museé d’Orsay, Paris, which had caused a commotion at the annual Paris Salon and skyrocketed the artist to immediate fame; fig. 2. Later, the artist would sculpt the subject of Anacreon, Bacchus, and Love as well.) Anacreon, known for his verses celebrating love, wine, and revelry, is presented as the spirited protagonist of this vibrant early work. Thirty years later, however, life has dealt him a difficult hand:
'TWAS noon of night, when round the pole
The sullen Bear is seen to roll;
And mortals, wearied with the day,
Are slumbering all their cares away;
An infant, at that dreary hour,
Came weeping to my silent bower,
And waked me with a piteous prayer,
To save him from the midnight air!
'And who art thou,' I waking cry,
'That bidd'st my blissful visions fly?'
'O gentle sire!' the infant said,
'In pity take me to thy shed;
Nor fear deceit: a lonely child
I wander o'er the gloomy wild.
Chill drops the rain, and not a ray
Illumes the drear and misty way!'
I hear the baby's tale of woe;
I hear the bitter night-winds blow;
And sighing for his piteous fate,
I trimm'd my lamp and oped the gate.
Twas Love! the little wandering sprite,
His pinion sparkled through the night!
I knew him by his bow and dart;
I knew him by my fluttering heart!
I take him in, and fondly raise
The dying embers' cheering blaze;
Press from his dank and clinging hair
The crystals of the freezing air,
And in my hand and bosom hold
His little fingers thrilling cold.
And now the embers' genial ray
Had warm'd his anxious fears away:
'I pray thee,' said the wanton child,
(My bosom trembled as he smiled,)
'I pray thee let me try my bow,
For through the rain
I've wander'd so,
That much I fear the ceaseless shower
Has injured its elastic power.'
The fatal bow the urchin drew;
Swift from the string the arrow flew;
Oh! swift it flew as glancing flame
And to my very soul it came!
'Fare thee well,' I heard him say,
As laughing wild he wing'd away:
'Fare thee well, for now I know
The rain has not relax'd my bow;
It still can send a maddening dart,
As thou shalt own with all thy heart!'
(From The Odes of Anacreon, Translated by Thomas Moore, 1800)
Having met, fallen in love with, and ultimately been abandoned by the infant Cupid, Anacreon is now a despairing and aged figure, with nothing to show for his compassion and vulnerability but an arrow to the heart.
Gérôme’s visual interpretation of Anacreon’s words draws from both art historical and literary precedents and from an idiosyncratic artistic process that Gérôme had developed decades before. Representations of Anacreon by artists such as Raphael and Greuze had established a vocabulary of pictorial conventions, but it was not until Anne-Louis Girodet’s publication of the poet’s work in the 1820s, with its fifty-four original illustrations, that nineteenth-century artists, including Gérôme, took almost universal note (fig. 3, 4).
To the spare simplicity of Girodet’s woodcuts, Gérôme added his own distinctive touch. A contemporary photograph documents the artist’s use of a live model for the figure of Anacreon in the third painting in the series, to better achieve his desired affects (fig. 5). Several preliminary sketches for the Anacreon series exist as well, in private collections in France, at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, and at the museum dedicated to the artist in Vesoul (fig. 6). These confirm that at least four paintings were envisioned in the completed cycle, though some contemporary accounts mention only three.
Gérôme’s careful composition of these pictures, and of classical subjects in general, was a practice he had perfected long ago. Having just lost the Prix de Rome due to “deficiencies in figure drawing,” Gérôme diligently studied physiognomy and the human form in the mid-1840s, in preparation for the upcoming Paris Salon. Intent upon mastering animal anatomy as well, he went daily to the Jardin des Plantes to sketch en plein air, making pictures that would ultimately be used toward his first entry to that prestigious annual event, the Combat de Coqs mentioned above. In addition to these exercises, Gérôme hired well-known Parisian models to sit for his compositions, sketching them in his urban studio. For landscapes and vegetation, Gérôme made use of a sketchbook of the Italian countryside he had compiled during his travels in 1844. These numerous on-the-spot studies and drawings from life would become the foundations of the artist’s rigorously academic approach and, along with the formation of a vast photographic library, would enable him to achieve the remarkable accuracy for which classical and historical pictures such as The Story of Anacreon were quickly known.
The third painting in the present series, Cupid Runs Out the Door, is one of two versions of arguably the most pivotal moment in the narrative. Cupid has struck the smitten Anacreon in the heart with his arrow, and flees from the room in which he had been nurtured by the poet with a final cruel smile. (Underscoring the message of Anacreon’s love lost is the painted bust of a woman in a niche above the younger poet’s bed; in the last painting in the series, this reference to human love is replaced by a shadow box filled with a collection of dead butterflies, pierced through their cores as well. The mysterious woman reappears again in the picture cycle as a small statue held aloft by the taunting Cupid, as he mocks Anacreon’s sentimentality and naiveté.) In the first, unfinished version of this third painting, Cupid departs on foot; here, in the final version of the scene, he flies. The change in Cupid’s posture heightens the dramatic action of the event, and allows the angle of the arrow to more convincingly penetrate Anacreon’s heart. (The background and floor in the first version are unfinished, with some of the preparatory drawing visible; this early painting, which has appeared at auction several times since Gérôme’s death in 1904, may have been abandoned by the artist as he sought the final, more successful composition presented here.)
Also heightening the emotion and sense of drama is the emptiness of the twilight compositions, suggesting Anacreon’s isolation and the aching loneliness that comes to him each night. The charm and wit of some of the artist’s most famous Néo-grec works are overshadowed by the quiet despair of Anacreon, who has apparently lost the two loves of his life. (Gérôme’s use of empty space in these paintings, it should be added, can be compared with his Conspirators of 1892, Private Collection, and the earlier Execution of Marshal Ney, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, England, 1868. Though very different in subject matter, they demonstrate the artist’s unexpectedly avant-garde interest in using the compositional device of the “void” or the “blank” in order to suggest mood and atmosphere.)
The present cycle, with the finished version of the third painting, last appeared in public in its entirety in 1933, and possibly again in 1945. A contemporary account of 1905 suggests that a miniature version of the entire cycle might exist as well. Though it was not unusual for Gérôme to paint more than one version of a picture or series, this detail, as well as several other aspects of this intriguing series is the subject of ongoing research.
This catalogue note was written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D., and the works will be included in her revision of the Jean-Léon Gérôme catalogue raisonné, currently in progress.