A favorite model with two familiar pieces from Gérôme's collection of accessories: in one hand a helmet (used as a prop in many paintings) and a tiger skin (the painting of fur being one of Gérôme's early specialities).
The handsome young model displays his wares to us on a Cairo street, and even great passages, like the glorious tiger skin and the incredible mesh neckpiece of the helmet fail to distract our attention from the appealing young man.
What gives the young man such authority when most of his body is covered? Gérôme gives a clear view of his shoulders and his hands which describe enough of an energetic contraposto under the tiger skin to give us a strong sense of hidden body, and the integrity of the body is confirmed by diagonal uniting of his head, his hand and helmet, and his foot, setting up a rhythm of amusing juxtapositions of shapes and body parts which nonetheless give emphasis to the great head. And we must admit, the sumptuous beauty of the covering adds to the handsomeness of the man. More surprising is the source of the pose, and the mixture of body and rich clothing, in a famous, early work by Rembrandt, Saul and David of 1630 (Frankfurt, Staedel Institute) (fig. 1). The pose is almost exactly the same, the coincidence of turbans fortuitous but deliberate at the same time. Many compositional devices of Rembrandt in his biblical history are taken over, as the foot-hand-head line, and the outline of the necklace around Saul's shoulders. In 1899, Gérôme was asked in a letter who his ideal painter was and he answered, "A man, notable by his love of nature, his naïveté, his sincerity, that's Rembrandt, who because of these two masterful qualities is at the same time a great poet," and he added, as good 19th Century academic and long-time drawing master, "If he had some plastic sense, he would be absolutely without fault. As a master painter, he would be my ideal". Not just his ideal, but his model, or the model for his model, as this borrowing shows. And as a gentle criticism of his ideal, Gérôme has tightened up all the forms - especially the drapery - that tend to spread a bit in the Rembrandt. We should not judge Gérôme harshly for criticism of Rembrandt, in true academic theory no painter was perfect (perfection belonging only to God); and Rembrandt was often disliked by academics; instead, we should be pleased that Gérôme's emotional and aesthetic response to Rembrandt was in no way impeded by his academic standards.
The street is shaded, yet the general light is still strong enough to model the face and hands, to reveal the intricacy of the light absorbing patterns of the pelt, to turn an array of glints on the helmet into a sparkling display, and to make the white wall glow in reflected light. An alley to the left leads through obscurity to direct sunlight. A deftly painted vignette of a hawker loaded with jars approaches us through the shadow of a passageway. The control of values in the passage seems casual but is masterful - the space is absolutely convincing. As part of the ensemble, its warm yellows colors back up the deep oranges of the tiger skin. The warm bluish tint of the wall behind the merchant that holds everything together comes to full flower only in the patch of sky at the end of the alley. It's as if Gérôme had used every one of his talents, pulled out all the stops he knew, to paint this picture. Every element is decorative, sumptuous, indeed, but subordinate to the general composition and the persuasive presence of the young salesman and his glorious wares. There are many wonderful details: the two hands with their animated fingers, the array of values on the helmet and the mesh neck covering. There are many fine passages in the work: the undulations of fur on the tiger skill, the beauty of the wall, etc. But still the alertness and strength of the young man dominates the canvas.
Gérôme often painted street merchants. Butchers and pot salesmen displaying their stock; a mature man loaded up with the familiar properties of Gérôme's studio (guns and jackets) and holding up the helmet in his right hand as he walks the streets of Cairo (my cat. no. 190 in the Brooklyn Museum) (fig. 2); and an older merchant trying to sell a sword to a man surrounded by companions inspecting the sword over the his shoulder (Private Collection, my cat. no. 181) (fig. 3). All of these are studio productions, convincing in space and atmosphere, wondrous in their figures.
We are grateful to Gerald Ackerman for preparing this catalogue entry.
(fig. 1) Rembrandt, Saul and David, Frankfurt, Staedel Institute.
(fig. 2.) Jean-Léon Gérôme, Marchand ambulant au Caire, 1869, Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum of Art.
(fig. 3.) Jean-Léon Gérôme, Vieux Marchand d'habits au Caire, Private Collection.