Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904)
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Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904)

The Egyptian recruting officer

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904)
The Egyptian recruting officer
signed 'J.L.Gerome.' (lower left)
oil on panel
11 x 16 in. (28 x 40.5 cm.)
Painted in 1861
Goupil & Cie., Paris.
Collection of the Duke of Hamilton, acquired from the above (FFr 6,000). Trustees of the Duke of Hamilton; his sale, Christie's, London, 7 November 1919, lot 134.
Acquired at the above sale for 120 gns, and thence by descent to the present owner.
G. Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, London 1986, no. 136 (as lost), (illustrated, p. 213).
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Lot Essay

Painted in 1861, at the height of Gérôme's career, the present painting depicts one of the artist's most important subjects inspired by his first trip to Egypt.

Gérôme undertook his trip to Egypt in 1856, financed by a commission of 20,000 francs, which he had received from the French government the previous year for Le Siècle d'Auguste: Naissance de N.-S. Jésus Christ. Possibly inspired by the earlier voyage to the Middle East of his teacher Marc-Gabriel-Charles Gleyre, Gérôme embarked with four friends spending four months in Cairo, and a further four months on a boat sailing up the Nile. Upon his return to France in 1857, Gérôme exhibited six paintings at the Paris Salon, five of which represented Egyptian subjects: Prayer in the House of an Arnaut Chief, The Plain of Thebes, Upper Egypt, Memnon and Sesostris, Chameaux à l'Abreuvoir, and Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert.

The present work, Egyptian recruiting officer, represents a scene common in Egypt during the nineteenth century, when young men from the villages were conscripted into the army of the Khalif, a process which dated back to the first attempt by Mohammed Ali Pasha, to build up a regular army in 1824. As seen in the painting, the recruits trudge across the desert, escorted by the Arnaut guard travelling on a long-suffering donkey, and challenge the heat and wind making their journey long and painful. Characteristic of Gérôme's most acclaimed orientalist paintings, this intense realism prompted the French critic Théophile Gautier to note that Gérôme succeeded in capturing the peculiar qualities of light and heat unique to the Egyptian desert. He further remarked that, contrary to the current fashion for representing hot countries as torrid and highly coloured, Gérôme had observed that extreme light drains all colours from objects and renders the sky and land white. In his review of the 1857 Paris Salon, Gautier described Gérôme's large Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert, in words which could easily illustrate the present painting of the same subject:

'A white sand, like china clay, blown into ripples of water by the wind, bearing the stamp of the passing caravans, and rising up in opaque flurries; a sky veiled beneath a dusty mist and burnt up by the shafts of a sun baked white; in front, behind, to the right and to the left, above and below, a leaden, arid waste, pale, dry, overwhelmed and overwhelming, where no moisture falls but drops of sweat, where nothing breathes but the asphyxiating khamsin (desert wind)' (London, Royal Academy of Arts, The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse European Painters in North Africa and the Near East, ed. M. A. Stevens, 1984, p. 138).

Egyptian recruiting officer clearly demonstrates Gérôme's fascination with the representation of natural elements in the atmosphere, and the lasting, visible uproar that sand and dust left with a passing caravan.


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