Throughout his tour of the Middle East and Egypt, Jean-Léon Gérôme acquired a variety of objects and clothes to use as props in his paintings, so that, even though his Orientalist paintings were all produced after his return to France, they still bear a strong Eastern feel to them. This painting from circa 1869 is a substantial example of that practice, as it portrays a model hired by Gérôme in Paris wearing an attire composed of fabrics and garments purchased by the artist in his travels. The oil on canvas is now exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Departing slightly from Gérôme’s usual style is the fact that here he chose to compose a portrait, where the artist usually seemed to prefer scene so that he could showcase the Architecture and overall feel of the Orient along with the clothes and ethnic types, for which he was much lauded. More than one attempt was made with different models at this same idea, but this is certainly the most successful and striking of them.
It portrays a young black man richly dressed and armed as a Bashi-bazouk, a group of mercenaries at the service of the Ottoman Sultan who received no wages, and as such had to survive solely on looting and whatever else they could get through violence and guile. The name they were given translated literally as “broken-head” or “headless,” since they had very little in the way of leadership or discipline, and they were as famous for their ruthlessness and violent dispositions as they were for their prowess.
That savagery might be the reason why the model in this exquisite portrait carries himself in a way that seems like he hasn’t surrendered himself to the artist completely for portrayal. The sideways position, partially hiding his many weapons, the wary expression on his face and his uncomfortable body language tell the story of one who accepted posing, but with severe restrictions.
Whether Gérôme construed this because of the mercenaries’ barbarism of because he understood that Muslims follow the doctrine of aniconism, a proscription against the portrayal of sentient beings, is unclear, but the latter would offer many an explanation for the artist’s methods. Regardless, Gérôme’s disrespect for the religious restrictions of his subject matter was able to introduce a whole new world to the common European, even if through an Orientalist lens.
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