Lot 168: Jean-Léon Gérôme , French 1824-1904 Le Barde Noir oil on canvas


October 23, 2008, 12:00 PM EST
New York, NY, US
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Description: signed J.L. GEROME. (center left) oil on canvas
Dimensions: measurements 24 1/8 by 20 in. alternate measurements 61.2 by 50.8 cm
Exhibited: London, Royal Academy, 1888, no. 205
Paris, Salon, 1892, no. 759
Literature: Athenaeum, May 5, 1888, p. 572
Athenaeum, June 9, 1888, p. 731
Fanny Field Hering, Gérôme, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, New York, 1892, p. 264
Gerald Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme: with a catalogue raisonné, London, 1986, p. 258, no. 343
Gerald Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme: monographie révisée, catalogue raisonné mis a jour, Courbevoie, 2000, p. 316, no. 343, illustrated p. 317 (with incorrect measurements)
Provenance: Private Collection, New York
Private Collection, Connecticut (acquired from the above circa 1945)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Of the five paintings exhibited by Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Royal Academy in London, Le Barde Noir is one of only two works not in a prominent museum collection.υ1 Its striking composition, singled out for comment not once but twice in the pages of one of London's most popular and esteemed literary magazines, the Athenaeum, bears all the hallmarks of Gérôme's mature Orientalist style. Here are the famously saturated colors, the seemingly impossible level of detail, and the kind of subject that Gérôme had come, by 1888, to perfect - a single, unforgettable figure, silhouetted against a blue-and-white tiled wall. The familiarity of the picture's composition does not diminish its importance in Gérôme's expansive Orientalist oeuvre, or the significance it has for an understanding of the nineteenth-century art world. Indeed, in the process of its creation and its international exhibition history, this painting may be one of Gérôme's most revealing contributions to the genre. The shrouded figure at the center of Gérôme's painting, eyes locked into the viewer's own, captivated nineteenth-century audiences. Identified as "a Nubian musician," given the East African bowl lyre at his side, his rose-colored robes recall some of the artist's most celebrated works, most notably the Bachi-Bouzouk nègre of circa 1869 (fig. 1). Like this impressive individual, the bard's "bronze-like skin is so beautifully modelled and learnedly finished that he looks like a fine statue" (Athenaeum, 9 June 1888, p. 731). But Gérôme's subject was no motionless work of art. Such expressiveness of countenance could only have come from a living model, likely secured by Gérôme in Paris, long after his Middle Eastern travels were over. (Gérôme had traveled extensively through the region in the 1850s, '60s, and '70s, making sketching expeditions to Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Syria, and Palestine.) The cross-handled sword and yellow Moroccan slippers may have been found in Gérôme's Parisian studio as well, as they reappear in countless other compositions. The carpet, on the other hand, which features unusual geometric and floral elements in the field and a border that is not readily recognizable, seems a product of the artist's imagination. The wall behind the bard is adorned with decorative tiles. Though the artist had amassed a considerable collection of Orientalist souvenirs by the time this picture was painted, including a selection of Iznik tiles that were used to decorate his studio walls (fig. 2),υ2 and had made extensive first-hand studies of Egyptian and Turkish architecture, it seems that Gérôme's inspiration for these patterns was one of the many photographs that he purchased from contemporary Orientalist photographers, including the Istanbul-based studio of the Abdullah Frères.υ3 The complications that the translation from photograph to paint could entail are here clearly in evidence: Gérôme's source must have been a photograph of the tilework to the left and right of the front door of the arz odasi (Hall of Petitions) in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, or possibly the fountain to its right, but the colors are not correct (fig. 3).υ4 With only a black and white image to work from, Gérôme mistakenly changed the entire color scheme, transforming the Ottoman color-glaze cuerda seca panel of tiles from the 1540s into an underglaze polychrome panel from the 1560s.υ5 So too, the artist has misunderstood the split-leaf rumi forms on either side of the lotus blossoms, possibly because they were not clear in the photograph. The border around this panel of tiles and the portion behind the bard's lyre are more successful renditions: here Gérôme draws from an underglaze-painted border of the 1570s and a blue and white panel from the later seventeenth century. The latter may derive from the wall of the kiosk attached to the Yeni Camii (or Yeni Valide Camii) mosque, completed in the 1660s, or from the Topkapi restorations of that period.υ6 Such creative interpretations would not have troubled Gérôme's audience, nor have affected the popularity of his pictures. Indeed, at the time of Le Barde Noir's exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1888, numerous examples of the artist's work had found their way into Britain's private homes. Among the most avid collectors were: George McCulloch (1848-1907), Samuel Mendel (1814-1884), John Grant Morris (1810-1897), Sir John Pender (1815-1896), George Schlotel (1806-1884), Henry James Turner (c. 1832-c. 1909), a London merchant who owned six works by Gérôme, and Charles Peter Matthews (1819-1891), an Essex brewer and the owner of the artist's spectacular Pollice Verso of 1872 (Phoenix Art Museum). The majority of these wealthy manufacturers and businessmen had purchased Gérôme's - and other French academic and Barbizon painters' - works directly from the Paris Salon, from Ernest Gambart's famous French Gallery (located in London's Pall Mall and bought by Henry Wallis in 1867), or from the esteemed dealers Arthur Tooth & Sons and Goupil & Cie.υ7 (Adolphe Goupil [1806-1893] was also Gérôme's father-in-law and was largely responsible for the artist's success in Britain and America, due to his extensive distribution of prints after Gérôme's paintings.) Gérôme's popularity in England was not limited to the domestic sphere alone. In 1869, Gérôme was made an Honorary Foreign Royal Academician ("H.F.R.A."); in 1871, this title was abbreviated to "H.R.A," suggesting an even deeper acceptance by the Academy members. The change may also have been compelled by Gérôme's new address: In 1870, Gérôme had taken his family to England to escape the siege of Paris; he would remain there with them until the summer of 1871. From his London studio, located at 17 Southampton Street, Gérôme composed pictures based on earlier works or on readily available models and props, some of which were exhibited at the French Gallery. As Gérôme himself had written of these years, "When I arrived in London . . . I had neither brushes, canvas, colours nor costumes. I soon made the necessary acquisitions, and as I found some Italians near at hand, I hastened to profit by this in employing them as models"(cited in Hering, p. 212). Pictures submitted to the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions in 1870 and 1871 were older canvases, which had been sent to Goupil's branch in London before Gérôme's own arrival, or works that he had brought with him during the war. Ironically, given his lack of resources, it was in London that Gérôme would begin his famous pictures of the hammam, or Turkish bath. These often featured two or more nudes, set against an elaborate background of ornate blue and white tiles.υ8 The first of these, the Moorish Bath (fig. 4), was started as a present to H. J. Turner, but was finished in Paris, "as the painter was unable to obtain a good Nubian model" (quoted in Ackerman, 1986, p. 89). As the exhibition history of Le Barde Noir suggests, Gérôme did not sever his ties with the Royal Academy upon his return to Paris. Indeed, it may be a sign of his affection for his temporary home that this work was sent to the Academy even before it was exhibited - a full four years later - at the Paris Salon. But many years had passed. With no submissions to the Royal Academy since 1871, Gérôme's reception at that institution had grown lukewarm. Rather than a hero's welcome, and despite his growing popularity among British collectors, his picture was poorly hung: "The elaborate pattern of the carpet, the sumptuous colours of the wall, and the sound, but somewhat metallic finish throughout [Le Barde Noir], are honourable elements of the art of the famous Membre de l'Institut, who, though an Honorary R.A., does not often contribute to this exhibition, where his work deserved a much better place than has been given to it" (Athenaeum, 9 June 1888, p. 731). Perhaps this was the reason that Gérôme chose not to send any additional paintings to the Academy after 1888.υ9 This professional disappointment must only have exacerbated what was already a difficult time for the artist. Between 1884 and 1891 Gérôme lost many of his dearest friends and family members. His own health was repeatedly compromised, due to the influenza epidemics that ravaged Paris in 1889-90 and 1890-91. Expressive of the difficulties of these late years is a letter written to his biographer, the American writer Fanny Field Hering, in September 1887: "For some time I have been oppressed with sorrow and melancholy - a sort of nostalgia. I have no courage to do anything, and do not like to burden others with my weakness" (quoted in Hering, p. 257). Pictures from these years seem fraught with emotion; they are more personal and increasingly symbolic in nature (see, for example, Le Poète, 1885, exhibited at the 1888 Salon). In this context, the meditative stare and solemn stillness of Le Barde Noir take on additional meaning, and its lone partner at the 1892 Paris Salon (fig. 5), the site of its second and final display, becomes not a ghostly foil to this brightly colored Orientalist work, but its spiritual complement instead. This catalogue note was written by Dr. Emily M. Weeks. υ1 According to the Royal Academy of Arts Complete Dictionary, Gérôme exhibited the following works at this venue: in 1870 (118) The Death of Marshal Ney (1867, City Art Gallery, Sheffield) and (985) Jerusalem (possibly Consummatum Est [Jérusalem], 1867, Musée d'Orsay); in 1871 (144) Cléopâtre apportee a César dans un tapis (possibly Cléopâtre et César, 1866, private collection) and (1150) A Vendre (1871, Cincinnati Art Museum); and in 1888 (205) Le Barde Noir. In 1893 Gérôme sent his final work to the Royal Academy, the extraordinary bronze and ivory statue Bellona.
υ2 The decision to tile his own studio may have been as practical as it was aesthetically pleasing: Gérôme could study the effect of light on the surface of these panels, thereby adding to the "authenticity" of his Orientalist compositions. It is worth noting that by the late nineteenth century, the Louvre, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and the Musée de Cluny had also incorporated Iznik ceramics, and in some instances, complete tile panels from important monuments, into their Islamic displays. These would have provided convenient study sources for Gérôme, and others of his Orientalist colleagues.
υ3 The best-known example of Gérôme's use of an Abdullah Frères photograph for a painted composition is the tilework in The Snake Charmer (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA). For more on Gérôme's dependence on Orientalist photography, see Ken Jacobson, Odalisques and Arabesques: Orientalist Photography 1839-1925, London: Quaritch, 2007.
υ4 The Topkapi Palace, founded by Mehemet II in 1459, consists of four courtyards built over a period of four hundred years. The architect most closely associated with the palace is Sinan, who carried out extensive work in the sixteenth century under Suleyman I. This period of building coincided with the rise of Iznik as a center for Ottoman tile and ceramic-making. The arz odasi, the third of the Topkapi's courtyards, features particularly beautiful examples of these famous tiles. This chamber was used primarily for official receptions; consequently, it is also known as the Audience Hall, Reception Chamber, or Throne Room. It should be noted that this was a section of the Topkapi that Gérôme would have had an opportunity to visit during his extensive travels through Turkey, making his choice of colors all the more intriguing.
υ5 The inclusion of yellow is an obvious example of this faulty transposition.
υ6 I would like to thank Professor Walter Denny for his help in determining these sources.
υ7 Tooth handled numerous pictures by Gérôme; he was a favorite with the Orientalist painters Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) and Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) as well.
υ8 Though these are the best-known examples of Gérôme's predilection for blue and white tile, see also his extraordinary portrait of the Greek war hero Markos Botsaris (1874, private collection).
υ9 Interesting in this regard is the artist's lengthy obituary in Britian, written by M. H. Spielmann and printed in the Magazine of Art in 1904. Here the author suggests that Gérôme would have exhibited at the Royal Academy more often "but for the fact that one of his best pictures, too nude for English taste, was on one occasion badly hung" (p. 208). The picture that Spielmann refers to was not Le Barde Noir, but A Vendre, exhibited in 1871. Please note this work will be sold unframed.
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