Jean-Léon Gérôme was one of the most influential French artists of the 19th century, whose grand official commissions and paintings in the academic style were among the most celebrated and discussed of the period. Despite his late initiation into the discipline, Gérôme enjoyed great success as a sculptor creating individual figures and monumental allegorical and historical groups of great complexity and elaborate decoration. This expansion of his artistic ambitions into the third dimension furthered his celebrity among his contemporaries and secured for him the reputation as one of the most versatile artists of the Belle Époque.
From the late 1890s, Gérôme began work on a series of equestrian portraits of historical figures from Antiquity through to the 19th century, taking a keen interest in ‘reviewing all of the great conquerors of the earth’ (E. Papet, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2010, Paris, p. 316). In addition to the present bronze, conceived in 1901, the artist also realized groups of Bonaparte entering Cairo (1897), Tamerlane (1898), Frederick the Great (1899) and Caesar crossing the Rubicon (1900) and in all displayed careful attention to the detail of the finishing of fabrics, fringe and other regalia. In a further discussion of Gérôme’s creative method, Papet delves into the sculptor’s painstaking research of uniform, textiles and armors when composing his ambitious polychrome portrait of the 12th century Mongol warrior Tamerlane. Similarly, so to fully understand a figure’s historical context, he would have been heavily influenced by both contemporary and historic renderings of Washington’s American Revolution exploits. In addition to Jonathan Trumbull’s 1792 portrait of General George Washington at Trenton and Scottish painter John Faed’s George Washington taking the Salute at Trenton, reproductive engravings of Washington at Monmouth, in which the General is depicted pacifying ranks of soldiers in a similar salute, made it possible for highly trained French sculptors such as Gérôme to create an historically accurate three-dimensional figure of America’s founding father.
However, Gérôme’s interpretation of Washington should not be considered a superficial attempt to copy popular images of the 18th century, but rather a commentary on equestrian portraits of revolutionary figures begun in Antiquity and most certainly culminating in Jacques-Louis David’s iconic Napoleon Crossing the Alps of 1801. First exhibited in at the Salon in 1901 (fig. 3), Gérôme’s Washington à cheval was lauded by critic Gustave Babin, who reveled in the artist’s triumphant reference to ‘le geste pacificateur de Marc-Aurèle classique’ (Revue de l’art ancien et modern, ‘Les Salon de 1901: La Sculpture’, Paris, 1901, p. 425). While several of his equestrian groups are known in numerous sizes and editions, the present lot would appear to be one of the few extant of the larger of two casts (80 cm.) by the Parisian fondeur Siot-Decauville. It is, thus, a fine and rare testament to the supremacy of the subject and virtuoso skill of the sculptor.