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The Academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme is one of the most important French artists of his time. He was born in May 1824, Eastern France, in a region called Vesoul, Haute-Saone. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Paris where he studied under the Academic master, Paul Delaroche, who was Neoclassical and delved into the Romanticist themes. Both master and apprentice traveled together to Italy in 1843 and was able to explore locations like the Vatican, Rome, and Pompeii. Although these cities were rich in culture for an artist to dive into, Gérôme was more interested in observing the world of nature around him. A year later, the artist was forced to return to Paris because of a fever. He would then study painting for a brief period in Charles Gleyre’s studio, like many other artists who previously studied under Delaroche, before attending the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts.
The year 1846 was a turning point for Gérôme, as he failed to win the Prix de Rome because the judges thought his figure drawing was faulty. During the same year, the artist painted one of his first masterpieces, entitled The Cock Fight. Théophile Gautier, a significant French critic, praised the Neo-Grec oil painting – a style that revitalized the Neoclassical style during the reign of Napoleon III. The immense success of The Cock Fight changed the direction of Gérôme’s career, and he gave up on the Prix de Rome, focusing on grand commissions coming in from new patrons.
As the years went by and Gérôme’s artistic production grew, so did the importance of his commissions. In 1852, the Academic painter received a grand commission to paint his prestigious historic piece entitled Age of Augustus, ordered by Alfred Emilien Comte de Nieuwerkerke for the Emperor’s court. This oil on canvas pays homage to Augustus, the first Roman Emperor while combining this theme with the birth of Christ, and the payment he received for it sponsored his trip to Constantinople the next year. Gérôme took several other inspiring trips to the East, exploring places like Turkey, the Danube, and Greece.
In 1856, the artist took an important trip to Egypt, the first of many, where he was inspired by the Arab religion, the clothing, artifacts, and mostly the North African landscapes. Like many other artists of the time, Gérôme was taken by the Orientalist style and would create quick oil sketches on location. The next year, he entered his Orientalist works in the Paris Salon, like Camels at a Watering Trough, Duel after the Masked Ball, Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert, and Memnon and Sesostris – enhancing his reputation as an artist. After getting married to Marie Goupil, the daughter of a prominent art dealer, Gérôme built a studio in 1860 in their large home, with space for painting and sculpting. The artist was honored with many prestigious titles, like knighted in the Légion d’honneur, and was elected an honorary member of the Institut de France, as well as being part of the faculty of the École des Beaux-Arts, among others.
Gérôme passed away at 79 years of age in his Paris studio in January of 1904. He was found facing a Rembrandt portrait and was near his masterpiece entitled Truth Coming out of her Well – a painting that speaks of illusion and its transparency, an influence of the rise of photography and its impact on fine art.