Few works of art can claim to represent the ethos of Academic Classicism as faithfully and thoroughly as this oil on canvas painting produced by Gérôme in 1860, a mere three years before its author would be appointed as professor in the École des Beaux-Arts. Currently exhibiting at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, this cornerstone of its time is loaded with the artistic zeitgeist.
The piece portrays the eponymous Greek philosopher, sitting in his living quarters, an earthenware tub, preparing his lantern so that he can roam the world in search of an honest man, a quest which he is largely known for having undertaken. A masterful painting at first glance, but requires a certain amount of previous knowledge of the subject matter to be had by the observer, as many other Academic Classicist works of art would, to adequately reckon the reasoning behind more than a few of its elements and details.
The philosopher’s very attire, for example, reflects that disgusted by the morals and values of his time’s society, he decided to remove himself from it in the search for clarity and wisdom, eschewing the trappings and customs of a Greek citizen, dressing in rags and behaving erratically instead.
That passage of his life is also reflected by his abode, precariously hidden in plain sight in the streets of Ancient Athens. His audience as well, composed of dogs as it is, references the name that was given to his philosophy of Cynicism, a word that derives from the Greek word for dog, meaning “dog-like.”
A philosophy emphasizing an austere existence, followers of Cynicism would leave behind their very citizenship, identifying instead as citizens of the world, or Kosmopolites, which was quite a statement in a society where much of one’s identity was related to being a citizen from one of the city-states.
Like many works from its time, this piece requires, then, knowledge outside that which concerns the aesthetic or the technical to be fully admired. This reinforced the Academic Classicist ethos, as well as reinforcing the values it treasured in the choice of the subject matter. To this end, Gérôme dedicated a great deal of effort on detail and portrayal, and an attentive observer will even notice the hole on the side of his tub which the philosopher is said to have used to urinate on his detractors.
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