Jean-Léon Gérôme: Duel after the Masquerade Ball
Duel After the Masquerade, painted in 1857, is one of the most remarkable and haunting pictures in Gérôme’s oeuvre. The picture depicts the aftermath of a duel after a costume ball – a foggy morning in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris. Pierrot is dying in the arms of the Duc de Guise; a man in the costume of a Venetian doge examines the wound while Domino behind them is overcome with emotion and remorse. To the right, the victor, in the costume of an American Indian, leaves alongside Harlequin.
What is it about Duel After the Masquerade that is so suggestive, so disquieting, so evocative? Is it the fact that we are looking at the last moments of Pierrot’s life? Surely not, as we have seen hundreds of pictures featuring men dying. Is it the look of concern and consternation of his fellows? Or is it simply the fact that a man in clown’s makeup is always both more-and-less than human…?
The point of the duel can be deduced by Gérôme’s clever use of costume. Pierrot is a pantomime character; a sad clown in love with Columbine, who usually leaves him for Harlequin. Pierrot is the quintessential loser – he is too naive for his own good, is the butt of pranks, and invariably trusts the wrong person. Harlequin, who is leading the winning duelist away, on the other hand, is a servant of the devil, helping chase the souls of the damned to hell. Clearly, these two men have not tried to kill each other over a point of honor, but over a woman and, in Gérôme’s picture, evil has triumphed.
And perhaps it is that – the clear triumph of evil – that is so haunting in this picture. The doomed Pierrot is clearly not a villain, and probably not the aggressor, either. Those supporting his body during his final moments are too horrified, too gentle, too dismayed for the dying man to have been an agent of evil. Indeed, Harlequin leads the Indian away (as he leads away damned souls) with their backs to us, as if we are unworthy of their regard. [The Jade Sphinx]