Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cleopatra Before Caesar

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cleopatra Before Caesar, 1886

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) was a French painter and sculptor in the academic style.  He is known for his depictions of Classical myth and history and especially for his Orientalism. However, one of his best known paintings depicts a duel in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.  He was able to marry his interest in painting and sculpture with a depiction of Pygmalion and Galatea.  After some initial setbacks, Gérôme achieved success at the Salon of 1847, which he parlayed into several important commissions. In 1856 Gérôme visited Egypt for the first time, beginning his fascination with the Middle East and North Africa.  He painted many different aspects of the landscape and culture in those regions, and made several more trips east. Cleopatra Before Caesar allowed Gérôme to explore both Classicism and Orientalism.  This initial meeting between Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra is often considered the quintessential encounter between east and west.  Having been driven from the palace by her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra allegedly smuggled herself into the camp of the invading Romans wrapped in a rug.  While the story is likely apocryphal, it speaks to the exotic and mysterious image of Cleopatra that society has developed.  In Gérôme's version of the scene, Cleopatra has all the agency and power.  She is the only figure standing upright and is the focus of everyone in the scene.  Although she is clearly marked as and eastern woman, with exotic dress and bare breasts, she is thoroughly European in appearance (which is likely accurate to Cleopatra's Greek ancestry but complicates her status as an Oriental seductress).  Caesar, meanwhile, is by comparison barely a feature in the overall impression of the painting; he sits in the background at his desk, almost blending in with his surroundings.  Cleopatra does not in fact look at Caesar, her eyes are downcast.  The most exotic figure in the painting is the servant (or slave) who has brought Cleopatra, who crouches in the corner, mere support for the Queen of the Nile to rest her hand on.  Gérôme's skill is most evident in the smooth and sculpted rendering of Cleopatra's skin and body, as well as the drapery of the rug that is unfurled at Cleopatra's feet.  By setting the scene in and Egyptian monument, Gérôme was also able to include Egyptian painting and hieroglyphs in the background, which I'm sure he greatly enjoyed.

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