JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME | RIDERS CROSSING THE DESERT
1824 - 1904
RIDERS CROSSING THE DESERT
signed J. L. GEROME. lower left
oil on panel
41 by 56cm., 16 by 22in.
We are grateful to Dr Emily M. Weeks for her assistance in cataloguing this work which will be included in her revision of the artist's catalogue raisonné by Gerald M. Ackerman.
Goupil & Cie. (by September 1871)
Lucius Tuckerman, Paris (purchased from the above in March 1872)
Goupil & Cie. (purchased from the above in May 1880)
Possibly, Knoedler, New York (purchased from the above in 1880)
Samuel P. Avery, New York
Andrew J. Sordoni III, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Mathaf Gallery, London
Purchased from the above
Goupil stock book, vol. V, no. 5691 (as Caravane au désert - Caravan in the Desert)
Recueil. Oeuvres de Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paris, vol. VII, no. 7
Goupil stock book, vol. X, no. 14522 (as Arabes traversant le désert)
Edward Strahan, ed., Gérôme: A Collection of the Work of J.-L. Gérôme in One Hundred Photogravures, vol. 8, New York, 1881, illustrated (as Arabs Crossing the Desert)
Catalogue de Paris, 1883, p. 66
Fanny Field Hering, The Life and Works of Jean-Léon Gérôme, New York, 1892, p. 240
Lynne Thornton, Les Orientalistes: peintres voyageurs, 1828-1908, Paris, 1983, pp. 112-13, catalogued & illustrated
Gerald M. Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paris, 1986, p. 91, illustrated; p. 230, no. 208, catalogued & illustrated (As Arabs Crossing the Desert / Arabes traversant le désert); also illustrated on the cover
Caroline Juler, Najd Collection of Orientalist Paintings, London, 1991, p. 132, catalogued & illustrated (as Arabs crossing the desert); p. 134, discussed
Gerald M. Ackerman, The Orientalists 4: Jean-Léon Gérôme: His Life, His Work, Paris, 1997, p. 99, catalogued & illustrated (as Arabes [sic] crossing the Desert)
Gerald M. Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Monographie révisée, Paris, 2000, p. 103, pp. 276-77, no. 208, catalogued & illustrated (as Arabes traversant le désert)
Gérôme & Goupil, Art and Enterprise, exh. cat., Paris, 2000, p. 114, illustrated, pp. 115-17, no. 64, discussed and a photogravure of the present work [no. 65] illustrated, p.160, listed (as Arabs Crossing the Desert [Arabes traversant le desert])
Kristian Davies, The Orientalists: Western Artists in Arabia, The Sahara, Persia & India, New York, 2005, pp. 78-9, catalogued & illustrated (as Arabs Crossing the Desert)
The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), (exh. cat.), Los Angeles, Paris, Madrid, 2010, p. 238, no. 142, catalogued; p. 239, illustrated (as Arabs Crossing the Desert)
Sydney, The Art Gallery of New South Wales; Auckland, Auckland Art Gallery, Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee, 1997-98, no. 46, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on long-term loan November 2007 - October 2016
Painted in 1870.
This intensely evocative work captures a moment on a hot day in the implacable brightness of the Egyptian sun, as a group of riders, seemingly undeterred by the adverse conditions, stoically traverses the vastness of the desert against the backdrop of a range of barren hills. With great mastery and a director's eye for narrative, Gérôme evokes the utter stillness and loneliness of the desert air. The heat is made palpable to the viewer through the bright sun on the riders’ brightly coloured robes.
Gérôme first travelled into the Egyptian desert in 1856, together with the sculptor and photographer Frederic Auguste Bartholdi as well as fellow painters Léon Charles Bailly and Narcisse Berchère. He returned in 1868 with his brother-in-law Albert Goupil, pupil Paul Lenoir, painters Willem de Farmas Testas and Léon Bonnat, and the writer Edmond About. Their expedition took them into the Sinai desert, offering privileged insights into the harsh world so masterfully captured in the present work. The frieze-like composition of the painting stresses the riders’ determined progress, while the contrast between the pin-sharp precision of the foreground group and the distant travellers on foot and camel suggest a caravan stretching far into the distance. These various elements create an impression of space and movement which arguably no other Orientalist artist could have conveyed in a canvas of this size.
The painting was based on sketches Gérôme had made of the desert and, more importantly, on the photographs first taken by Bartholdi and later by Goupil on the expeditions he made with them. Both the panoramic backdrop and the precise style in which it is executed make Riders Crossing the Desert a fascinating example of the link between photography and Gérôme’s own painterly vision, which was based on precision draftsmanship and clear composition. The aesthetics of photography, a process that produced a unique image on metal, had many similarities to academic painting, and Gérôme used the new invention as justification for his obsessive drive for verisimilitude. 'Photography is a vocabulary that can guide artists in their translation of nature, an album in which they can find fresh ideas and new inspiration,' wrote the photographer Antoine Claudet. In this respect, Gérôme’s work also has to be deciphered in the context of contemporary rationalist desires to organise and categorise knowledge, with the founding of the French archaeological institutes in Athens, Rome, and Cairo, and with the birth of the new field of ethnology.
Yet Gérôme skilfully played on his reputation for accuracy. While his travels to Egypt and his use of photography lent his Orientalist visions the impact of eyewitness statements, Riders Crossing the Desert bore the seal of the artist's nostalgic imagination, perpetuating the notion of the North African desert as a theatrical, cruel, immutable, timeless place at a point when Egypt was, in fact, a fast-changing country undergoing modernisation from the top down. From 1850, French ships sailed from Marseille to Alexandria via Malta in seven days. From the 1870s, journeys became faster, and soon Alexandria had a rail connection to Cairo. Only a year before painting the present work, Gérôme had been sent to Egypt as part of the French delegation for the inauguration of the Suez Canal, which transformed Egypt into an international shipping thoroughfare. As Linda Nochlin observed, Gérôme’s paintings underlined 'a strategy of realist mystification', at a time when the Orient was fast becoming more accessible. She writes: 'Time stands still in Gérôme’s painting... [He] suggests that this Oriental world is a world without change.'
The present work was published as a photogravure by Goupil & Co. in 1878.