Jean Léon Gérôme created images that were illusions of reality that are cinematic in scope. The Carpet Merchant is a perfect example of his style, the flawless technique absolutely transporting the spectator. The size of the canvas, painted in oil is 86.04 x 68.74 cm, 27.06 inches x 33.88 inches, two and a half feet wide by not quite three feet tall. Today, it is a part of the permanent collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and is currently on display.
The painting is Orientalist in style. “The Orient” is a British-French term for the Near East—anywhere east of the Mediterranean and south of Greece—as it was represented by Western European artists in the 19th century.
In the case of The Carpet Merchant, the Oriental setting is the interior of the Khan El Khalili Bazaar in Cairo, Egypt. The bazaar is still as popular with visitors today as it was in 1382, when it was built, or in 1885 when Gérôme visited. The architectural details remain unchanged from the time Gérôme made the sketches upon which he based this painting.
After visiting Egypt and the court of the rug market in Cairo and making hundreds of detailed sketches, Gérôme returned to Paris. Using his drawings, he completed the painting in his carpet and objects-filled studio, located on Boulevard de Clichy in Paris in1887.
Orientalist painting in France followed the trend brought about by Napoleon's (ultimately unsuccessful) invasion of Egypt at the end of the 18th century. Spurred by the invasion, the fascination with Egypt influenced literature, fashion, and art. Egyptology became an academic discipline. Increased tourism and advances in photography helped support the craze. The Carpet Merchant spoke to the public’s intense interest in all things Egyptian.
Gérôme has two major artistic influences which are apparent in The Carpet Merchant. First, Ingres, whom Gérôme admired, and who also brought historical and classical themes to life. And secondly, his teacher Delaroche, who also painted in a cinematic way, presenting subjects as human and accessible. From these painters, he also inherited his finished academic style.
Following the success of Young Greeks Attending a Cock Fight, Gérôme found himself acknowledged as the leader of an art movement. He became the standard bearer for the Neo-Grec style that experienced a revival of the 1840s. Sadly, he was to witness the demise of the classical style and considered himself at war with the modernists.
With fellow Academy member Charles Bargue, Gérôme wrote the book on classical drawing. A certain student named Vincent Van Gogh completed the coursework outlined in the book, which is still available for art students today. He was one of three professors at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The list of accomplished painters, including Thomas Eakins, Odilon Redon, and Mary Cassatt, who were students of Gérôme, is a testimony to his accomplishment and talent.
The Institute de France Academie des Beaux-arts of which Gérôme was a member, demanded paintings to be absent of the artist’s hand—no brushwork at all is visible in The Carpet Merchant. We see Gérôme’s rigorous classical training on display: draftsmanship, mastery of the human figure and a foundation in classical antiquity. The narrative style of his work also owed a great deal to Pre-Raphaelite storytelling.
Gérôme set himself apart by being an artist who included obsessive archeological detail in a classical setting, but he didn’t always depict his subjects as pure or good. Gérôme left behind high-minded antiquity and allowed his subjects to be real people, actual individuals, not just gods, and goddesses. This was as radical as anything being done by other modern artists of his time.
He held a great disdain for some of these other modern artists, as the Impressionism movement going on right outside his studio doors. The Ecole, where he was a professor, exhibited a Manet retrospection which upset him greatly. Once he started complaining about the “decadent fashion” of the modernists, he became unpopular with the Academy. But he never had a problem getting commissions, especially in the U.S. where American collectors quickly
Gérôme’s reputation was built not only on his original style but also with the help of his father-in-law who owned an art dealership in Paris. Goupil & Cie marketed reproductions of Gérôme’s works in a variety of sizes, reproduction techniques, and price points. Supplying an emerging middle-class with inexpensive decoration using state-of-the-art processes, the Goupil & Cie factory outside Paris produced engraved, etched, photographic and even sculptural copies of Gérôme’s paintings. Because of this, Gérôme’s art was well known, and his fame grew. Postcards and reprints served him well and allowed him to travel and paint for those who could afford original canvases.
He was rebuked for being a commercial success and critics accused him of painting so that his work could be reproduced and sold. His strong opposition to the Impressionists led him to be considered the anti-modern poster boy, an establishment hero who painted scenes from history rather than gritty street life, which the Impressionists were popularizing. He was Goupil & Cie’s star and in the second half of the 19th century the most famous and financially successful living artist. His paintings sold for ten to one hundred times what the Impressionists paintings brought in. His images were so widely distributed that they entered into popular culture as no images ever had. They were the memes of their time, and remain icons to this day.
Even as his paintings set in classic settings like The Carpet Merchant were railed against by critics with modernist aesthetics, the storytelling and suspense on display captivated the attention of huge audiences. Critics thought his work too smooth, too photographic and too representational—as he became more and more popular.
By the 1850s French photography was in full flower, the genre had become very popular. Patrons of the arts were becoming accustomed to seeing images of reality. Gérôme responded to the cultural zeitgeist not by shattering light as the Impressionists were doing, but by using light to create a heightened reality. Gérôme used academic research, fantasy and detailed reality to fill The Carpet Seller, as well as his other paintings, with drama. By developing a striking combination of documentary-level reconstruction and CGI-level illusion, Gérôme was Hollywood before Hollywood.
In The Carpet Merchant Gérôme uses a clever mix of detail, texture, color and the illusion of depth. Complementary colors of red and green, blue and orange draw our eye initially to the rug under consideration. Other rugs in the foreground create an L-shaped frame around the composition. The central figure’s white turban provides the area of highest contrast, indicating who is the subject of the painting. He stands, hand on hip, sumptuously dressed in a fine, well-tailored robe, looking to make a purchase. He is one of three figures in the middle ground, spread out and gesturing.
Closer to us is four more men, closer together, striking a different visual chord.
Of these four, who technically are the focal point of the composition, one is obscured, except for his red turban. The other three have almost identical expressions as they view the rugs. They are dressed similarly, but a little less opulently than the buyer. They stand side by side in the mid-ground. Their turbans and robes alternate complementary colors: ochre orange next to blue, green next to red, yellow turban next to a last swash of violet sleeve. The remaining figures in the salon are dressed in neutral grey, beige or white. The two men with the longest beards and most neutral clothing are probably both salespeople. The one in grey—on the green-sash, long beard team—seems to be trying to convince the buyer’s companions that the buyer is making a good decision. And if he doesn’t buy the carpet, one of them should.
Two-point perspective makes the group closest to the viewer the focal point of the painting. The strong line of the blue sleeve leads us to the two pairs of hands clasped behind backs, which in turn point us to the gesticulating thumb which sends the eye to both the buyer and the rug under consideration.
Three more men look down from the loft. As the viewer of The Carpet Merchant, Gérôme positions us to witness numerous discussions taking place in the room, we are so close as to be eavesdropping on negotiations. Like many of the artist’s works, this is a picture about looking, both spectacle and spectator are seen. The three in the loft observe the same action as the painting’s viewers. We creep into the scene, only seen by the mysterious figure in shadow in the alcove in the far background.
In the doorway, adding to the theatrical arrangement of the stage-like setting, more observers linger, shoeless, perhaps they are guides. The angle of the young man’s turban against the ancient wall and dark, mysterious doorway guides the eye to the gray sleeve of the man with his friends in the loft.
There is a geometry of the piece; the verticals provide stability and elegance, the horizontal lines force the eye around the room. All the action is taking place in the lower third of the painting. The entire right upper half is devoted to the details of the ancient building. The carpet merchant himself gets the entire real estate of the lower left quadrant to do his work. The carpet under current discussion seems to be the very source of light for the painting.
While the eye moves around the canvas, it takes in the detail of the carved walls, the fine pattern of the woven rugs, and Victorian horror vacui— even the quietest corner of the painting is filled with tiny details. The white-capped man to the far left is dressed differently than the others. He waits with more rugs, still unfurled. If the buyer doesn’t take the rug under discussion, the seller has much more to offer.
Gérôme traveled extensively, taking many trips to the eastern Mediterranean, and he painted many pieces based on his exotic travels. His research documenting tile patterns, donkey poses, and the very quality of light in the middle east contribute to making all his paintings, from The Moorish Bath to Selling Slaves in Rome, a reality all his own. During a time of drastic change in France, The Carpet Merchant presents a scene of the eternal East. Gérôme was dedicated to accuracy. The Carpet Merchant’s setting, craftsmanship, and architectural details are faultlessly realistic. But the narrative of the painting is fantastic.
Here, an earlier time in an exotic locale is brought to life before our very eyes. Eye-witness immediacy brings the past vividly to life. Critics of his style at the time said that with Gérôme, painting ended and cinema began. The thrill of modern art pushed established classical artists like Gérôme aside. But more recent scholars and curators, especially since the Getty Center’s exhibition The Spectacular Art of Gérôme in 2010, see Gérôme’s incredible naturalism and perfect drawing technique not as exploitation but as exploration. Audiences are appreciating him once again for the super-talent he was.
Artists like Gérôme and pieces like The Carpet Merchant have been brought out of storage and back onto the world’s stage to be once again admired.
The Carpet Merchant is charming and accessible, yet the amount of historical, architectural and cultural knowledge needed to create this painting is astounding. The ability to bring together these aspects of technical skill and erudition demonstrates why Gérôme is recognized as one of the great image creators of the 19th century. Following a five hundred year tradition of classical painting, he used light, texture, setting, and story-telling to move art to new heights. He knew how to create a stunning image, and his paintings like The Carpet Merchant once seen, make an unforgettable impression.
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