Jean-Léon Gérôme is arguably the most important exponent of the highly realistic, detailed style of painting that was the hallmark of Orientalism when it first appealed to public taste in the mid-nineteenth century. An immensely talented academic painter, Gérôme was consumed with recording specific ethnic types with tremendous accuracy and authenticity. Contemporary critic Theophile Gautier (1811-1872) noted: "M. Gérôme satisfies one of the most demanding instincts of the age: the desire which people have to know more about each other than that which is revealed in imaginary portraits. He has everything which is needed in order to fulfill this important mission" ("Salon de 1857 IV," l'Artiste, July 5, 1857, p. 246).
In the urban setting of Cairo, Gérôme set his ethnographic sights on the Arnault, descendents of the Albanian soldiers brought to Egypt by the Pasha Mehemet Ali, and Ottoman irregular mercenaries, known colloquially as bashi-bazouks (literally "damaged head" meaning leaderless or without discipline). The latter military subjects were remnants of a force that Mehemet Ali had decimated years before, in an effort to consolidate his power. During the height of their existence, bashi-bazouks were feared as brutal, merciless and unpredictable – contemporary reports on their crimes and offenses even traveled as far as America ("Hadjin, Zeithoun, Aintab; Scenes of Pillage, Massacre, Desolation Made by Bashi-Bazouks," New York Times, December 27, 1895; "Atrocities in Macedonia: Bashi-Bazouks Celebrate a 'Carnival of Vengeance,'" New York Times, May 16, 1903; "Bashi Bazouks Spread Terror in Bulgaria," New York Times, July 1, 1903). Although they were armed and maintained by the Ottoman army, bashi-bazouks were not paid by the army and did not wear uniforms; they pillaged for their payment. Their use was abandoned by the end of the nineteenth-century, however, self-organized bashi-bazouk troops still appeared later.
By the time Gérôme encountered the bashi-bazouks during his travels, they had become more a living record of times past than a relevant military force. Paul Lenoir, who accompanied Gérôme on two of his master's tours in Egypt (in 1868 and 1881, during which time he died in Cairo), described these men in his journal: "Whilst attending a new conquest of Egypt by whoever it may be, these soldiers of ornament, these opera-comique sentinels have no other duty than to pose for any itinerant photographer that might honor them with his patronage. Their costumes artistically open at the breast, their arms 'de luxe' as brilliant as inoffensive, their proud and disdainful attitudes, their least gestures, everything about them seems to have been most carefully studied. Nothing, however, is more natural than these interminable moustaches 'a la grecque,' which cut their visages in two like the two most enormous horns of the buffalo, and which form the most appropriate ornament of these energetic faces, bronzed in the sun. The moustache, which has nothing Arab in its principle, is with the soldier of Cairo a sign of Albanese origin...It was an innovation in a land in which the beard is held in the highest esteem, and where the respect which is due to a man is measured by the length of this hirsute ornament. Soldier en amateur, however, he acquits himself of his role with care; and he has become the indispensable furniture of the door of a mosque or of the entrance to a palace. He is like the 'Swiss' [Swiss guards outside of the Vatican] the chasseur of our ancestors, but having instead of the halbert about ten or a dozen weapons, sabers, pistols, artistically intercrossed in the compartments of a vast girdle of red leather, which gives him the aspect of one of the show-windows of the Divisme on the boulevard Haussmann," (quoted in "Arnaut of Cairo," in Edward Strahan [Earl Shinn], ed., Gérôme: A Collection of the Works of J.L. Gerome in One Hundred Photogravures, New York, Samuel L. Hall, 1881).
In A Bashi-Bazouk and His Dog, Gérôme's ability to accurately transcribe the physiognomy of his subjects in incredible physical detail is wholly evident. The exaggerated, almost theatrical, ferociousness of the figure is underscored by his defiant stance: his body is slightly angled, feet spread apart, and his hands placed imploringly on his hips. His head is cocked with dramatic flair, while his furrowed brow accentuates his penetrating gaze. He is a visual foil to his loyal whippet, whose own diverted gaze and gently up-tilted head is reminiscent of the noble pose frequently adopted by war-time heroes in historic portraits. The accoutrements of his renegade life are proudly displayed; two large pistols are strapped to chest while a long, thin sword hangs beside them. A large saddle sits behind him, perhaps reference to the commonly held knowledge that bashi-bazouks could fight both mounted and dismounted; Gérôme's subject seems to proudly demonstrate his capacity for the latter. His heavily pleated Arnault skirt (which likely entered Gerome's large costume collection around the mid-1860s) and fitted, salmon-colored satin sleeves are flamboyant elements of his adopted uniform. Less an homage to a celebrated, revered commander, A Bashi-Bazouk and His Dog depicts an impulsive and hot-headed fighter, arrogant and confrontational in his demeanor. Gerome's ability to inject such psychological content and narrative detail into this diminutive work is testament to his intuitive sensitivity to his subjects and his profound skill as a painter.
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