Socrates Seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia was one of Grme's entries to the Salon of 1861. The painting illustrates an episode from the section on Alcibades in Plutarch's Lives, where Socrates tries to persuade the youth Alcibiades to leave a house of prostitution. Grme decided to capture the precise moment when Alcibiades is literally positioned between Socrates and the courtesan Aspasia. The young protagonist has to choose between a life of vice and excess and one of virtue and moderation.
This painting exemplifies Grme's early career when he was affiliated with the No-Grec painters. The group consisted of students he had met in the studio of his teacher Charles Gleyre, which included Auguste Toulemouche, Albert Aubert, and Timolon Lobrichon. They chose to paint themes of classical antiquity but resisted the didactic treatment of these themes emphasized by the previous generation of Neo-classical painters such as Jacques-Louis David. In effect, the Neo-Grecs painted classical subject matter with a wittier, caressing touch. Their pictures are also considerably lighter in palette, which reflects Gleyre's influence. Another name for the No-Grecs was Pompistes, which was given to them by Thophile Gautier because of their admiration for Pompeiian frescoes. Indeed, Grme would have had a chance to visit Pompeii during his trip to Italy in 1843-1844.
Grme chose to depict this episode by combining accurate historical details with imaginative invention, adding a measure of faithfulness to Plutarch's text. At least three studies related to the present work exist. It appears that the large Afghan hound at the foot of the bed was a later addition. In one oil sketch, (fig. 1), a chair with draped cloth occupies the place where the dog will eventually be positioned while most of the compositional elements remain in place. Grme also made an individual drawing of the dog in the exact pose shown in the painting (fig. 2).
Alcibiades' dog was mentioned by Plutarch who wrote, "Possessing a dog of wonderful size and beauty, which had cost him seventy minas [7,000 drachmas], he had its tail cut off, and a beautiful tail it was, too. His comrades chid him for this, and declared that everybody was furious about the dog and abusive of its owner. But Alcibiades burst out laughing and said: ''That's just what I want; I want Athens to talk about this, that it may say nothing worse about me" (Plutarch, p. 23). Thus the phrase "to cut the tail of Alcibiades' dog" refers to an act of rash impetuosity. There was also a play written by Lon Corlon, Le Queue du chien d'Alcibiade, produced in the Thtre Franais and performed in Paris in 1850. Grme has decided to represent the hound with its tail intact in the final version.
Although the subject matter is Greek, Grme combined a number of references including Pompeiian frescoes, Roman architecture, Greek sculpture, and Renaissance painting. Architectural decorations resembling Pompeiian frescoes with their characteristic shades of warm red and ochre are located in the distant background. The pose of Alcibiades is similar to Raphael's Apollo in the Parnassus while Socrates's pose recalls that of a male nude by Polykleitos. Despite his eclectic choices, Grme created a vivid scene as if he were a witness present at this event.
In his 1881 description of this painting, Edward Strahan [Shinn] commented, "Every reader knows, more or less vaguely, the story of Socrates going to seek his friend Alcibiades in the house of the beautiful Aspasia, and when the first sight of M. Grme's painting recalls the incident to his mind, he experiences a certain obstinate desire to see and know the details of this far-away and picturesque scene. Nothing can be more complete than the completeness with which the painter gratifies this curiosity. Everything is given-the physiognomies, the costumes, the actions, the furniture, the surroundings-in such an exhaustive manner, that whatever the archeologists may say, by observing the details of the picture one is made to feel quite sufficiently 'seized and possessed' of all the information desired" (E. Strahan, [Shinn], New York, 1881). Grme's ability to represent concretely not only the historically accurate and truthful, but also the fanciful and imaginative, is evident in this work.
This painting will be included in the forthcoming revised edition of the catalogue raisonn on Grme being prepared by Gerald Ackerman.
fig. 1 J.-L. Grme, Alcibiades, Collection Snite Museum, University of Notre Dame
fig. 2 J.-L. Grme, The Afghan Hound, circa 1861, Collection Muse Baron Martin, Gray, France