Jean-Léon Gérôme was the most gifted in a line of French realists stretching back to Baron Gros and Paul Delaroche. But whereas his predecessors had meticulously researched the past to recreate it in polished detail on canvas, Gérôme's staged scenes in his studio based on his frequent visits to Egypt and Asia minor. His studio, crammed full of artefacts he had collected on his travels, ressembled a stage-set. The paintings he created there were visual anthologies, combining elements of these props with his own sketches and professional photographs. Almost photographic in their detail, his canvases were notable for their marmoreal textures and polished paint surfaces. So famous was Gérôme in his lifetime for this aspect of his work, that the artist was known as an "ethnographic painter."
The present work perfectly encapsulates the combination of detail and imagined setting: the carefully rendered and sumptuous surfaces of tiles, carpets and stone, intense light and vibrant primary colours are crafted together to create an overall composition artfully designed to dazzle an audience fascinated by the Orient. Gérôme's artifice was both a function of necessity, as many of the settings he painted (from mosque interiors to harems) were off-limits to foreigners, or simply of the artistic imperative to create a more striking overall composition.
The present work is closely modelled on the interior of the Rustem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul. Designed by the Ottoman Empire's premier 16th-century architect, Mimar Sinan, the mosque is particularly notable for its Iznik tiles, regarded as the finest examples in the world. Although the painting is also known as The Blue Mosque, the latter title was most likely based on the signature blues of these tiles, which dominate the background of the composition, rather than on any ressemblance to the Istanbul mosque of the same name. Although Gérôme had a reconstructed minrab niche installed on the walls of his studio, surrounded by a collection of tiles, modern photographs (see figs 1, 2, 4) clearly show that he was familiar with the interior of the Rustem Pasha Mosque. The tiles with red tulips, the Minbar (pulpit), and altar are all faithfully reproduced, although the Koranic verse over the latter is made up in Gerôme's painting.
The technique of setting lavishly dressed figures against intricate backdrops was a favourite of Gérôme's, one which permitted him to show off his skill at rendering different exotic textures and surfaces -- from the richness of clothing to the reflective properties of tiles. The present painting is a tour-de-force of this vein, comparable with such masterpieces as The Snake Charmer (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown - fig. 3).
Of the present painting, Professor Gerald Ackermann writes:
"The artist has represented his figures from behind, each one created as a distinct individual differentiated in body type, clothing and pose. Those in the foreground are all shown at different stages in the ritual of prayer, despite the fact that the strictures of communal prayer dictate a common posture for all worshippers. Gérôme may have considered the recording of the different steps of the prayer as part of his duty as an ethnographer. Moreover, the rhythmic relationship of the different postures unites all the figures in communal prayer. The strong bare legs of the Bashi-Bazouk to the left make the viewer sense the bodies covered by the long cloaks of the other men, and also highlight the importance of the foot placement in the prayer ritual. Overall Gérôme has successfully communicated the intensity and piety of the prayer ritual by gesture rather than facial expression."
We would like to thank Professor Gerald M. Ackerman for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.