Gérôme's Corinth represents the tyche or spirit of the evocative ancient city which straddled the stretch of land joining the Peloponnese to mainland Greece. The subject references Gérôme's first major sculpture, Tanagra, which depicts the tyche of the ancient Boetian city at which excavations in December 1870 unearthed a group of polychromed Hellenistic funerary figurines, confirming the controversial and much disputed theory that ancient sculptures were painted. The Corinth is equally provocative, but in a different respect. The Greek city, celebrated in antiquity as the birthplace of painting, sculptural portraiture and, of course, the Corinthian column capital, was also famous for her hierodules, or sacred prostitutes who resided in the temple of Aphrodite. Gérôme's Corinth deliberately evokes this sexual practice, which would have been scandalous to a 19th-century Parisian Salon audience. This fact is confirmed by the inscription: NON LICET OMNIBUS / ADIRE CORINTHUM (Not everybody can go to Corinth). Implying that not everyone can afford to savour the city's illicit pleasures, the inscription is a nod to Strabo's damning account of Corinth as a city where 'Rich merchants and military men met their ruin ... their irremediable ruin, which prompted this proverb 'not every man is made for Corinth' (Strabo, Geography, book xii, vol. ix, as quoted in Papet, op. cit., p. 328).
The evocation of the Corinthian hierodules simultaneously conjures up eastern associations, since Herodotus had famously described them in Babylon where they would 'sit in the ancient enclosure of Aphrodite with a crown of cord upon their heads ... Visitors would pass by and make their choice. A woman seated here is not allowed home until a stranger has cast money into her lap and he has lain with her inside' (Herodotus, Histories, Book I, as quoted in Papet, op. cit., p. 328).
The present dazzling gilt-bronze is one of a handful of bronze versions of Gérôme's model to have been offered on the art market. It was cast by the Parisian Siot Decauville foundry, known for their innovative and beautiful patinas. According to Gerald Ackerman, each bronze version is slightly different, some being gilded, others silvered, and with different stone inlays. The present sculpture has a beautifully preserved gilt patina, complemented with glittering semi-precious stones, which conjure up the sumptuous polychromed aesthetic which is a defining feature of Gérôme's work. The use of a solid gold colour for the flesh imbues the figure with an almost ethereal quality; she is at once human and divine.
As with all of Gérôme's great sculptures, the plaster original and the subsequent marble version were polychromed, creating a heightened sense of realism through, Pygmalion-like, breathing life into inanimate material with the use of colour. The marble, which was executed posthumously by Gérôme's assistant Louis-Émile Décorchemont, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1904 alongside Rodin's Thinker and Constantin Meunier's Miner. In many ways it marked the end of an epoch in sculpture. It was described by the critic Tristan Leclère as 'a masterpiece, but a masterpiece from the conclusion of an art: it does not open up the way to new attempts; it marks an end; it is the final term in polychrome sculpture' (Leclère as quoted by Papet, op. cit., p. 328).
Gérôme's obsession with realism and historical accuracy led him to carefully research the figure's jewellery, which is inspired by Greek and Etruscan jewels from the Louvre, see for example the 4th-century Serpentiform ring illustrated by Papet (op. cit., p. 328, fig. 163). The elaborate necklaces are also reminiscent of those adorning the Lady of Elche, which caused a sensation when it was discovered in Spain in 1897, and is now in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid (inv. no. N.I. 1971/10/1). Despite this historical accuracy, the woman presented, from her hairstyle to her facial features, is herself clearly a late 19th-century Parisienne. Seated upon a Corinthian capital she represents antiquity brought to life within the environment of the turn of the century Paris Salon in the form of a contemporary courtesan. Imbued with Classical and Oriental eroticism, like one of Herodotus' hierodules, she is simultaneously patient, detached and inviting. As Papet has argued, Corinth is 'Gérôme's final scholarly demonstration, a hyper-realistic version of the femme fatale, and an enigmatic sphinx' (op. cit., p. 328).
P. Fusco and H.W. Janson, The Romantics to Rodin: French Nineteenth-Century Sculpture from North American Collections, exh. cat. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 291-292, no. 157 (entry by Gerald Ackerman); G. Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Monographie révisée. Catalogue raisonné mis à jour, Paris, 2000, p. 382-383, no. S 9; L. des Cars, D. de Font-Réaulx and É. Papet, The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2010, pp. 326-328, nos. 192-193
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