Monday, September 25, 2017

Working in Marble (1890)

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Working in Marble (aka The Artist Sculpting Tanagra)

This complex self-portrait is a summation of Gérôme’s remarkable career as both painter and sculptor. It is also a commemoration of his famous sculpture Tanagra (1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), a stately nude personification of the ancient Greek city, who holds one of the small painted figurines for which the artisans of that city were known. These figurines were discovered and exhibited widely in the late 19th century, reinforcing the notion that classical sculpture was originally vividly colored. Inspired by his characteristic desire for both archaeological accuracy and realism, Gérôme delicately tinted the skin, hair, lips, and nipples of his Tanagra, causing a sensation at the Salon of 1890.

Like most 19th-century sculptors, Gérôme did not carve the marble himself but furnished professional marble cutters with a full-size plaster to use as a guide. It is this intermediate step that is depicted in Working in Marble, a title that refers to the overall creative process. Gérôme portrays himself on a turn stand putting the finishing touches on the plaster version of Tanagra, carefully judging the accuracy of his work against the live model. He is in his second-floor painting studio (which could not actually have housed an unfinished marble of that size), described by a contemporary as a “splendid room, with its great sculptures and paintings, some still unfinished, and a famous collection of barbaric arms and costumes.” Indeed, this painting includes many of these props—quiver, saddle, armor, drums, waterpipes, flag, textiles, masks—used regularly by Gérôme to enhance the authenticity of his Orientalist and classical scenes. It also contains several of his finished works: the Tanagra-inspired Hoop Dancer; Selene the moon goddess; and his painting Pygmalion and Galatea (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This small image of a marble sculpture transformed into female flesh provides a mythological gloss on Gérôme’s own activity in Working in Marble, powerfully evoking the continuous interplay between painting and sculpture, reality and artifice, as well as highlighting the inherently theatrical nature of the artist’s studio. [Dahesh Museum]

Monday, September 11, 2017

Pygmalion and Galatea (1890)

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Pygmalion and Galatea

Between 1890 and 1892, Gérôme made both painted and sculpted variations on the theme of Pygmalion and Galatea, the tale recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X, lines 243–97). All depict the moment when the sculpture of Galatea was brought to life by the goddess Venus, in fulfillment of Pygmalion’s wish for a wife as beautiful as the sculpture he created. Gérôme’s correspondence with his biographer Fanny Field Hering provides information about the origins of the present picture. In 1890 the artist remarked that he had begun painting Pygmalion and Galatea, stating that he was trying to rejuvenate the subject, which he thought very hackneyed, and adding that the picture would depict the statue coming to life. In November 1890, he mentioned Pygmalion and Galatea among several pictures that he had painted the prior summer, which were nearly finished. [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Friday, September 8, 2017

Harlequine (ca. 1890)

Jean Béraud: Harlequine

In the 1890s, Béraud departed (like so many artists and writers at this time) from his earlier naturalism in favor of more symbolic content, as if discontented with mere surface appearances. He did not totally renounce street scenes, but he experimented with new subjects, such as his contemporized versions of biblical stories and costume pieces like Harlequine, in which a single figure is the sole focus of the painting.

This conventionally pretty woman is dressed for costume ball as the female counterpart of the stock figure Harlequin. Her costume adopts elements of the traditional commedia dell'arte character: the diamond pattern, the bicorne hat, the stage sword whose harmlessness is coquettishly demonstrated by the model. But Béraud discards the half-mask so that her porcelain-smooth profile is fully visible. The traditional multicolored costume is exchanged for stylish pink and black.

Elegant she may be, but she is also a vivacious coquette. Béraud emphasizes her desirability through her coy behavior and exposed legs. Her painfully tight corset, which achieves the fashionable 18-inch waist, adds to her seductive charms. [The Haggin Museum]