Orientalist Paintings

Three of a Kind: Jean-Léon Gérôme Works that Redefine Orientalism

By Richard Lowkes
Ahead of Sotheby's Orientalist Sale on 30 April, we take a look at three highlights, all by the same artist, Jéan-Léon Gérôme, whose work helped redefine how Western audiences viewed the Middle East.

S o influential was the Orientalism of Eugène Delacroix for the artists who came after him, it might be assumed that for later artist-travellers, 'the Orient' (as North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East were then known), offered few fresh subjects.

Instead, three paintings by the leading nineteenth-century artist Jéan-Léon Gérôme in our upcoming Orientalist Sale on 30 April reveal how the artist continued to break new artistic ground. Widely seen in international exhibitions, and prints after his paintings collected in their thousands, Gérôme redefined westerners’ visual imagination of the near Islamic world. Such paintings would have been unthinkable without the artist’s first-hand knowledge of the region, born of his numerous journeys there.

1. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Evening Prayer, Cairo.

The practice of Islam was a defining fact of most of the people Orientalist artists encountered, from Algiers to Istanbul. Yet no notable work by Delacroix depicts the distinctive rituals of Muslim prayer. Gérôme arguably defined the subject in art, paving the way for later artists. Evening Prayer, Cairo, which relates to an earlier oil in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, is one of Gerome's most famous compositions. Gérôme’s work has always enjoyed international appeal: first acquired by a Manchester textile merchant whose business was being transformed by the opening of the Suez Canal, the painting soon went to a collector in the America, where it remained until recently. The many worshippers across the rooftops in Cairo share in a moment of prayer, brought into an almost cosmic unity with the crescent moon. Painted with sensitivity and respect, such scenes give the lie to the old idea that Orientalist artists were prejudiced against the people they encountered, or that they were little more than propagandists for western culture.

2. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Prayer in the Desert.

While Evening Prayer, Cairo demonstrates the communal experience of prayer, Prayer in the Desert looks at an individual’s experience of faith. The Arnaut, an irregular soldier in the Ottoman army, pauses during a desert crossing to perform his devotions. Meanwhile the desert convoy continues in the distance. The composition was probably inspired by Gérôme’s journey to Egypt and Syria in 1862, when he crossed the desert for the first time.

3. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rider and his Steed in the Desert.

Rider and His Steed in the Desert reveals Gérôme’s narrative, pre-cinematic vision. With a photographer’s eye for depth of field, the rider and his mount, off-centre and in sharp focus, are set against the softer expanse of the Sinai desert, overwhelming and pitiless in its scale. Gérôme learnt much about photography from his travelling companions, such as Albert Goupil and Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty). Unique in Gérôme’s oeuvre, the work paradoxically invites comparisons with depictions of man cast adrift and powerless before the sea, such as Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. A meditation on the harshness of the desert and the respect due to those who brave it, the viewer is invited to identify with the man’s plight. Gérôme selected the work for important international exhibitions: it was one of four paintings he exhibited at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873, and one of ten shown at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878.

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