Trained under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Delaroche, Jean-Léon Gérôme has long been regarded as one of the staunchest standard bearers for Classicism and Academic painting in the 19th century. However, this reductive view ignores the innovations and creativity of this unorthodox classicist, who represented history as a dramatic spectacle and, through his mastery of the highly finished Academic style, transported his viewers by presenting an illusion of reality on the canvas – taking us from classical antiquity, to the Orient, and to his own time. There is perhaps no finer example Gérôme’s innovative bent than this enigmatic portrait of Markos Botsaris, which, as the artist’s only known portrait of a historical figure, holds a unique place within Gérôme’s oeuvre.
Botsaris, revered as a hero of the Greek War of Independence, died while leading a surprise counter-offensive against the Turkish army besieging Missolonghi in 1823. Leading a group of several hundred Souliots, Botsaris attacked the 3,000-man strong Ottoman army near Karpenissi under the cover of night. While the offensive was a success and Botsaris’s small group was able to inflict serious casualties, he himself was mortally wounded during the fighting. Buried with full honors in Missolonghi, Botsaris came to regarded in popular culture as a modern-day Leonidas, with Missolonghi taking the place of Thermopylae. The Philhellene François Pouqueville wrote after his death that, ‘the whole of Greece recognizes in Marcos Botsaris the object of its grief, a second Leonidas.’
Unsurprisingly, Botsaris’s heroic death and the Greek War of Independence more broadly became a rallying cry for Philhellenes across Europe, and a similarly popular subject for Romantic painters and writers. This was compounded by Botsaris’s association with his friend Lord Byron (fig. 1), who had financially supported the Souliot soldiers and would eventually take over the command of Botsaris’s men. When he arrived to take on the command, Byron visited Botsaris’s tomb and swore that he would fight to the death for Greece’s freedom in the sacred memory of Botsaris. Byron’s death less than a year later, and the burial of his own heart at Missolonghi as well, further cemented the connection between the two in the minds of those across Europe who had rallied to Greece’s cause. The great Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, who was inspired by Byron’s writings in a number of his early paintings, also painted Botsaris as a heroic figure and planned a Salon-scale work depicting the great warrior, though this never came to fruition.
For all the interest in the Greek War of Independence among the Romantics in the first half of the 19th century, it is not immediately clear why Gérôme chose to take up the subject of Botsaris nearly fifty years later and execute the only known historical portrait in his oeuvre in so doing – the artist was notoriously tight lipped regarding his choice of subject matter. It is unlikely that Gérôme even had any way of knowing what Botsaris himself looked like; the warrior had died the year before Gérôme was born and the model used for the present painting, wearing the same costume, appears in another of Gérôme’s paintings of the same period – Public Prayer in the Mosque of Amr, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Further, the only aspect of the painting which gives any clue to the identity of the subject is the work’s title, though we know it was given this title by the artist himself, as it is the title recorded in Goupil’s stock book when they purchased it from Gérôme in the year it was painted.
However, Gérôme delighted above all in creating of totally new pictorial worlds, often choosing subject matter and narratives which appealed to erudite viewers, and there are a number of possible interpretations of the painting on this level. The first is that Gérôme was interested in exploring the associations of Botsaris as a heroic figure during an especially nationalistic time in French history. The first several years of the 1870s had been a particularly difficult and bloody period for the nation, with the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris followed immediately by the horrors of the Commune. As France, and particularly Paris, began to rebuild in the years following, there was a surge in national pride that accompanied this process. As a hero of an earlier war, it is possible that the subject of Botsaris appealed to Gérôme on this level, though the artist was not known to be particularly patriotic. Perhaps this then explains the tempering nature of the figure’s moody pose and expression, which seem to recall Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia I (fig. 2) and look forward to works like Auguste Rodin's Le penseur (fig. 3) first concieved circa 1880. Botsaris may have been a hero to his nation, but like those who had just suffered through the horror of war on their own doorsteps, he knew all too well the cost of becoming such.
The work may have also been a continuation of Gérôme’s mid-career exploration of how he could revolutionize history painting, as the portrait of Botsaris is a fascinating fusion of the artist’s Orientalist subject matter with his interest in history painting. A student of Paul Delaroche, Gérôme sought to inject his history paintings with a humanity and theatricality that would emphasize his originality, even when treating subjects that had been painted by countless others before him. Certainly the compositional arrangement – with the figure set back into a nook and the space he occupies delineated from that of the viewer by means of the rug which cuts across the foremost horizontal plane of the composition – does evoke a stage. So too does the exclusion of any detail to nod to the subject of the painting emphasize this theatricality – while the scene is emphasized by the beautifully rendered Iznik tiles and other accoutrements which surround the figure, the central focus of the composition is the pathos expressed on the figure’s face and through his body language, and the whole of the dramatic story of the scene is encapsulated within the figure.
In this, the portrait of Botsaris is an interesting heir to one of Gérôme’s most original and controversial paintings – Golgotha, which he exhibited at the Salon of 1868. Golgotha, which depicted the crucifixion through a moody view of Jerusalem with the shadow of three crucified figures in the foreground, was poorly received when it was exhibited because of its break with the traditional imagery of the death of Christ. Gérôme was upset with the criticism, arguing that the work had a ‘certain poetry, a new way of expressing its subject that belonged very much to the field of painting’ (J. L. Gérôme, Notes Autobiographiques, ed. G. Ackerman, 1981, pp. 16-18). Golgotha too obfuscates the main subject at hand and rejects traditional codes of heroic treatment in an effort to dramatize the narrative of the image. Both Golgotha and the present portrait of Botsaris evoke an emotional resonance belied by their relatively simple compositions and which owe their power to Gérôme’s remarkable ability to imbue negative space with dramatic tension. Writing to Knoedler about this portrait when the painting was in the dealer’s possession in 1898, Gérôme emphasized this idea himself, saying, ‘the simplest means are decidedly the best.’
Though images of history’s ‘great’ men appear in Gérôme’s oeuvre with some regularity, few have the power, pathos, and poetry of this enigmatic portrait of the hero of the Greek War of Independence. His intense stare and ornate crimson garment exude a sense of power and resolve, while the dramatic lighting which cuts sharply across the center of the composition casts half of his face into shadow, emphasizing his dark contemplation – of his fate, of his country’s fate, or of what he knows he must do; the viewer is left to consider this unresolvable question themselves. An extraordinary fusion of his detail-rich Orientalist settings with his innovate talent for history painting, Markos Botsaris is truly one of the masterpieces of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s oeuvre.
We are grateful to Graydon Parrish for confirming the authenticity of this work.