Monday, May 12, 2008

Lessons Learned

Whenever I see the name Jean-Leon Gerome I immediately think of his greatest student and one of my favorite artists, Thomas Eakins. Born May 11, 1824, Gerome taught many great artists in addition to Eakins (including Abbott Handerson Thayer, J. Alden Weir, Mary Cassatt, and Theodore Robinson, just to name prominent Americans), but he was a remarkable artist in his own right, albeit a bit of an anachronism stylistically as Impressionism raged all around him and he continued to paint neo-classically. The more I look at Gerome’s work, the more I search for keys to Eakins’ development. When I look at Gerome’s Phryne before the Areopagus (above, from 1861), I imagine Eakins having it in mind while painting The Agnew Clinic, in which another woman appears revealed before a semicircle of men, but in an operating theater rather than an ancient judicial chamber. Gerome’s Phryne before the Areopagus brought him condemnation for what many saw as a gratuitous excuse for painting a nude woman, yet he continued to paint classically inspired nudes for the rest of his life. Years later, when Eakins faced similar approbation for unashamedly studying the human body (and encouraging his own students to do the same), Eakins may have drawn strength from his old teacher’s example.

Gerome is known primarily as an Orientalist painter, traveling throughout Africa and the Middle East in search of material he translated into works such as Public Prayer in the Mosque of Amr Cairo (above, from 1870). It’s truly heartening to view the dignity with which Gerome depicts different cultures in works such as A Japanese Imploring a Divinity (1880), The Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors at Fontainebleau (1864), The Wailing Wall, and Recreation in a Russian Camp, Souvenir of Moldavia (1855). Sure, paintings of slave markets and harems can be found in Gerome’s oeuvre, but a single painting such as A Muezzin Calling from the Top of a Minaret the Faithful to Prayer (1879) outweighs all the cheesecake nudes painted for a buying (male) audience. Eakins rarely travelled, but it’s easy to see the same inquisitive nature that led Gerome to explore the world at large in Eakins’ paintings of the scientists, physicians, and clergy found mostly around his native Philadelphia.

The fact that both Gerome and Eakins struggled with public perception of their painted nudes took a similar toll on both artists. In 1895, Gerome painted himself sculpting a young nude woman in his studio, calling it The Artist's Model (above). From the positioning of the woman and the title of the work, Gerome clearly wanted to emphasize the importance of the human figure to his work. Gerome’s 1849 painting Michelangelo (aka, In His Studio) similarly placed the master beside the Belvedere Torso, just one of the classical nude statues that influenced Michelangelo’s works. I don’t know what paintings of Gerome’s Eakins may have seen, but in 1877 Eakins painted William Rush Carving his Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River, showing his American predecessor William Rush working from a live, nude model just as Gerome looked back at Michelangelo’s example. In 1908, four years after Gerome’s death and just 8 years before his own, Eakins returned to the subject in William Rush and his Model. Although the title says Rush’s name, the artist shown is clearly a self-portrait of Eakins, who helps his nude model step down from the podium, allowing the human form itself to take center stage, just as in Gerome’s painting. I’ve never seen anything written about whether Eakins knew that late painting by Gerome. It would be even more remarkable if Eakins didn’t know it, as it would illustrate just how attuned these two artists—student and teacher—truly were, irrespective of time and place. Great minds, at least in this case, thought alike.

1 comment:

Micah said...

Thank you for your post.

I am great admirer of Gerome and Eakins. Each had a dedication and rigorous approach to the human figure.

As I read your article, I wondered if Gerome and Eakins' emphasis on the human figure in art is still misunderstood. Today artists don't feel any shame in showing the nude; sometimes showing it in the most degrading and violent situations without controversy. At the same time, a strong education in human anatomy and drawing for artists no longer exists in most University curriculums.

It seems to me that for all the attention Eakins has gotten over the past few years and the consequent recognition of his genius, it has not stirred a discussion on one of his central beliefs: the study of the nude is essential. That is a belief he inherited from Gerome and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.