A contemporary of Jean-Léon Gérôme once remarked, 'Every time Ingres sees a Gérôme, he must ask himself, "Wasn't he one of my students?"' During the first decades of his career, Gérôme, who was not Ingres's pupil, felt shadowed by the older painter. Here, in this genre portrait, he breaks out on his own. A beautiful young girl looms out of the darkness of the background and out of her mane of hair to look at us without noticing us. Her mood is not of confrontation or aloofness, as in Ingres, but of distance, as she backs into her own world.
Both artists were great draughstmen and colourists. Ingres was a master of clarity, able to evoke frissons by arabesque lines and eccentric anatomy, as well as by the fullness and vivacity of his decorations. Although Gérôme idealises his women - albeit not so much as Ingres - he puts different factors into play, such as the fullness and heaviness of form; he also exploits space, filling it up without cluttering. No one doubts that the girl's arms are in the sleeves of the jacket, anatomically correct, full, fleshy, and pressing against the heavy material. The varying values of colour and light on the jacket counterpoint the dazzling glitter of the coin necklace on her chest. The weighty cloth of the jacket curves around her body as it alternately clings to her arms and puckers up, wrinkling and distorting the carefully studied pattern. But just as in Ingres, these feats of observation and technical assiduity do not detract from the solidity of the girl's presence, here deeply introverted. Just like an Ingres lady, she is stilled among the finery on the strong vertical axis. Much in the canvas is like Ingres, except Gérôme's eye is different, less inclined to generalise into linear extravagances, more inclined to exploit chiaroscuro - in tandem with line - to add the mystery of individuality rather than of public personality.
The young girl stands by and leans on the top of a chest with inlaid decorations of mother-of-pearl and coloured wood, her elbows and supple hands resting on its surface. One notices at once the evident but broken triangle of the composition: the open side gives weight to her posture, and support to her pensive, almost sad expression; this may simply be an accurate depiction of the mood the model would habituate during a long pose, for her expression is much the same as an unfinished study of the girl, sold by Goupil, in 1877.
The deep colour of the upper right-hand corner is clarified in the dark tones of the rug in the lower right hand corner. Her face, her fingers are on a non-central vertical axis. The rod she holds sets up a great triangle over hand and up to the top of her head, but it also masters other diagonals on either side, the right arm, the fingers of her hand, the eccentric diagonal of the right sleeve, form a veritable coda to the composition.
These compositional traits are both clever and calculated, and show the thought Gérôme put into what could seem like a casual pose. The colour values, the chiaroscuro and the linear composition all complement each other. The Jeune Fille égyptienne belongs to the great series of genre portraits of the late 1880s, that can be called 'the Women of Cairo series', painted by Gérôme after a short trip to Istanbul where he evidently went on a great shopping spree, buying expensive women's clothing for his studio. The beautiful jacket on this model seems never to have been used by him again, whereas the necklace of coins is a familiar subject from other paintings.
We are grateful to Professor Gerald M. Ackerman for preparing the above catalogue entry.