Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 9, 2020
Gülru Çakmak Jean-Léon Gérôme and the Crisis of History Painting in the 1850s Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2018. 256 pp.; 13 color ills.; 36 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781786940674)

Gülru Çakmak’s book on the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme was a joy to read. It is the first monograph that I have read that engages seriously, thoroughly, and deeply with Gérôme’s academic paintings. It focuses on the artist’s most famous works from the 1850s, an early stage in what was to become a stellar career within the institutional framework of nineteenth-century Paris: Duel after the Masquerade (1857), Prayer in the House of an Arnaut Chief (1857), Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (1859), Death of Caesar (1867, extant in three versions) and César (the lost 1859 “close-up” version of Death of Caesar). The book’s first chapter also analyzes Gérôme’s frieze-like Age of Augustus, the Birth of Jesus Christ (1855), a last gasp at an attempt to produce the kind of history painting enshrined in great public works like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Apotheosis of Homer (1827). However, what singles out Gérôme’s creative trajectory in the 1850s is his move from this ancien type of history to a new, modern, self-reflexive, hyperaware painting of time, history, and narrative that was to shape an entire generation and a half of artists in his wake and fundamentally transform European history painting. Gérôme’s shift was in itself shaped by the example of his teacher, Paul Delaroche, and Çakmak brings this out beautifully in her juxtaposition of Delaroche’s Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1834) with Gérôme’s Duel.

Çakmak describes Delaroche’s Duke and Gérôme’s paintings from Duel onward as deploying a narrative technique that she refers to as “clue structure,” which is the presence of “carefully placed visual cues [that] aggregate to something like an official report noting the particulars of a crime scene” (47). This mechanism, the author argues, “facilitates the production of mental imagery, delegating a key role in experiencing a historical incident to the viewer’s imagination” (47). This is a deft formulation of the rhetorical strategy found in Delaroche and Gérôme (and, I might add, in innumerable European narrative paintings from the second half of the nineteenth century). In keeping with her emphasis on reception and the viewer’s part, Çakmak pays close attention to what critics published about the paintings. Some of the passages she analyzes, like the Salon review by Théophile Gautier, will be familiar to specialists, but the discussion that links the Pierrot figure in Gérôme’s Duel to performances by the contemporary mime artist Charles Deburau (who dressed in a Pierrot costume) is inspired and leads to new insights on the death scene in Gérôme’s picture. Eugène Pellatan recalled: “I have seen Deburau die so many times with a stain of blood on his chest” (quoted 60). This creates a multilayered and poignant context for viewing the painted dying Pierrot.

Another new insight is derived from Çakmak’s discussion of the role of facture in Gérôme’s art. This is a theoretical novelty, given the generally cursory mode in which scholars have been handling the academic art of the “licked surface” (to call up Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner’s influential discussion in their 1984 book Romanticism and Realism). So while Gérôme has in recent years enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance (a major retrospective at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2010; a scholarly collection of essays edited by Mary Morton and Scott Allan in 2010; and a handful of essays and articles), nobody has yet gone into the givens and the theoretical implications of the painter’s actual technique. In an ingenious move, Çakmak links the brush-effaced epidermis of Gérôme’s academic paintings to a fundamental modern experience of history: “The past is omnipresent underneath the ground that covers it, but it is fundamentally lost to us. . . . This is why the ground surface is so highly charged in Gérôme’s art: it is a receptacle, a field that links the past to the present” (204). Looking at Gérôme’s facture in this way also casts a new light on the painter’s dismissive comments on the Impressionists later in the century. Çakmak argues that his skepticism of Édouard Manet and company’s sketchy surfaces derived from a fundamental belief about the ontology of painting. Gérôme voiced his dismay at what he perceived to be the Impressionist art of the surface, a painting that fetishized the epidermis and treated the artist as the origin and the painting as the resultant “original” (205). Gérôme subscribed to an opposite view, that “a truthful painting had to problematize the truth-claim of the facture-as-index that inhabited the surface” (205). Çakmak’s argument here recuperates what has been perceived simply as Gérôme’s unreconstructed and reactionary dismissal of modernist painting as arising from sophisticated thought processes of what painting means.

Çakmak’s approach to both the formal aspects of Gérôme’s painting and its critical reception leads to another set of fascinating insights in the chapter on his Caesar paintings. Here, the author links the “clue structure”—that is, “the physical residue” (137)—left behind on the canvas in the wake of a past event to a somatic response of discomfort on behalf of viewers. The critic Paul Mantz wrote about César that “the spectator experiences a feeling of unease” (quoted 157). Çakmak illustrates the potential of such unease in a highly original use of photographs of Death of Caesar as well as of Gérôme’s later Chariot Race (1876), taken from an extreme oblique angle. The anamorphic distortions bring out wildly divergent foci in each case, and we are led, by looking at the images on the page, to reimagine our physical movements in front of the works that would produce these different experiences and, hence, different readings. It is striking how the “lateral view from the right” (171) of Death of Caesar deemphasizes the dead Caesar and focuses our attention on the curules (chairs) and the fist-clenching, glowering seated senator in the depicted Roman Senate. By contrast, the “lateral view from the lower left” (172) foregrounds Caesar’s corpse and squashes the chairs and seated senator into nothingness.

Elsewhere in the book, the discussion of Age of Augustus effectively sets the scene for key arguments about the so-called “crisis” of history painting in the mid-century. The analysis of Arnaut Chief engages with literature on Orientalism in nineteenth-century painting in which Gérôme tends to be a large figure, especially due to his later output of scenes set in Egypt and Turkey. The term “Arnaut” referred to Albanians serving in the Ottoman army, and in Gérôme’s painting we see an Arnaut and other men of diverse ethnicities assembled to common Muslim prayer. Çakmak once again draws on contemporary reviews to pull out the ethnographic implications of this grouping.

Personally, I found the chapters on Duel and Caesar the most engaging and original. In these sections, the author provides an extremely sophisticated analysis of a set of pivotal nineteenth-century paintings and fleshes out what lay at the crux of not only Gérôme’s art making but also, I would say, the entire academic enterprise. The conclusions drawn go far beyond the immediate subject of Gérôme and open out onto the field of nineteenth-century history painting in general.

The book will be an indispensable go-to study for all subsequent scholarship on Gérôme and on European history painting. If I may be so bold, I would like to say that Çakmak’s argument subverts her own book title: what she describes is not so much about a “crisis” but about a triumph of history painting, as it successfully rose to the new challenges of modern art.

Nina Lubbren
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK