Au cœur de Caire, les souks
Oil on canvas, unlined: 22.8 x 31 cm. / 8.9 x 12.2 in
Inscribed: l'arche de La chapelle
Related works: Vue du Caire and Le mur de Salomon, oil on canvas sketch, 23 x 31.5 cm. The three works remained together until their discovery and separation in 2011.
Jean-Léon Gérôme was born in Vesoul, not far from Besançon and the border with Switzerland, and was the first son of Pierre Gérôme, a goldsmith, and his wife Claude Françoise Mélanie Vuillemot, a merchant's daughter. At school in Vesoul he had much academic success from an early age, in his final year receiving first prize in chemistry, an honourable mention in physics and another prize in oil painting, having commenced painting lessons when aged 14 after five years of drawing classes. His drawing master was Claude-Basile Cariage, a strict task master in the academic methods who is thought to have once worked in the atelier of either J B Regnault or of Ingres.
His schooling complete, in 1840 at the age of 16, Gerome set out for Paris with a letter of introduction to Paul Delaroche who was then at the height of his fame. Delaroche's style, which he naturally communicated to his students, was a fusion of the academic Neo-classical school and the dramatic subject matter of the romantics in which the universal themes of the former were replaced with the personal psychological studies typical of the latter, resulting in, what might be termed, a historical genre painting style. Delaroche also recommended the study of Phidias (i.e. casts after the friezes and pediments of the Parthenon).The atelier routine was rigorous, with five hours each morning spent drawing from either a cast or model, a week being spent on each drawing, and the afternoons spent on personal studies, perhaps sketching in the streets or countryside or copying old masters in the Louvre. Gérôme also took supplementary courses at the École itself, possibly in anatomy or perspective. He was popular with his fellow students at the atelier and, since the income from his father made him relatively well off, his various accommodations at this time in Paris always had an open door. Indeed he often cut his own food rations dangerously to keep his friends fed.
Encouraged by Delaroche, he offered a drawing to the Magasin Pittoresque and had it accepted. Thereafter he became a regular contributor. In his third year of studies, returning from a vacation in Vesoul, he learned of the closure of Delaroche's atelier: Delaroche was in depression following the death of his wife, Louise, the daughter of Horace Vernet, and also that of one of his students following a dueling incident. Gérôme found his teacher setting off for Rome and asked to accompany him. Gérôme was later to refer to his year in Rome as the happiest and best time of his life.
Returning to Paris in the autumn of 1844, he entered the atelier of the famous Swiss painter and teacher Charles Gleyre (1806-1874) who had more or less taken over from Delaroche. Amongst his many later famous students were Monet, Renoir, Bazille and Whistler. Besides the usual drawing or painting from a model or cast, Gleyre also taught composition - a rare occurrence in an atelier. Remembering his own poverty as a student, he never charged attendance fees at his classes.
Gleyre's traditional empathy with Phidias and Raphael was at a time when the Realist movement was developing and his own compositions might have seemed somewhat old-fashioned, however his students reacted inventively, keeping their master's classical figures and settings with their idealized backgrounds, but instead of employing elements of the grand manner to paint historical, biblical or mythological subjects, they painted antique genre scenes. His students became known as the Pompeïstes or Neo-grecs and Gérôme - doubtlessly due to the learned and sophisticated wit of his compositions together with their freshness and accuracy - became known as the leader of this small group. However, in addition to Gleyre's attention to correct and accurate settings in his compositions, he also had an enthusiasm for the Near East - an area which was ultimately to become Gérôme's destiny.
When Delaroche returned to Paris from Rome, summoned to work on an important commission, Gérôme left Gleyre's studio to become his assistant and he stayed for almost a year. Delaroche encouraged him to prepare paintings for the Salon and he was soon commissioned to paint a reproduction for the Queen. For this he was given a studio in the Louvre. It was to be the first of a long series of official commissions. He also worked on "The Cock Fight", a large canvas combining nude studies with animals, which he intended for the Salon of 1847. After much lobbying, he succeeded in obtaining an unobtrusive location for it there. Fortunately, however, it was noticed and praised by the well-known poet and critic Théophile Gautier - a man who was later to support Gérôme throughout most of his career. His review made Gérôme famous and effectively launched his career.
A tireless worker, he rose at dawn, worked while there was good light throughout the day and only indulged in social amusements at night. Greater fame followed these commissions and his prices gradually increased until, by 1860, the state found that he had become too expensive.
Gérôme made his first visit Egypt in preparation for the Salon of 1857, in which his earliest Egyptian genre paintings were exhibited. The critic Gautier saw in them ‘a true and fresh view of the Near East’. The variety of subjects and themes he presented astonished the Parisian audience and marked the start of the artist’s career as an Orientalist or peintre ethnographique.
At the end of 1861 Gérôme planned an eight month visit to Egypt and the Near East, but his plans were endangered by a duel. An exchange of violent words with a certain Mr. Stevens (an art dealer), possibly over a woman, led to the challenge. Gérôme had never dueled before unlike his experienced opponent and was probably saved by his doctor’s last minute advice to stand sideways. Gérôme missed his target but the challenger’s bullet struck the artist’s right wrist and then lodged in his shoulder. Not to be deterred, however, Gérôme set off for Egypt with his arm still in a sling.
These two plein air oil sketches were almost certainly done on this second trip to North Africa and the Near East. They each retain the minuscule holes at the corners where the artist pinned the un-stretched canvas to his travel easel; Gérôme used canvas which he found more durable than the paper he had employed on his earlier trip. On the same journey, Gérôme visited Judea and Holy Places, where he painted the view of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem that was originally the left panel of this series. In the years to come Gérôme would return frequently to the plein air sketches he had painted whilst travelling through the Near East and North Africa. The hilltop view looking over Cairo would become the artist’s dramatic portrayal of the young Napoleon Bonaparte surveying his first great conquest (see related works) while Gérôme’s sketch of the wailing wall would be transformed into le Mur de Salomon (1869, 92 x 73 cm, Private Collection), populated by praying figures, of which he also painted a vertical sketch (25 x 18 cm.)
After his marriage, Gérôme bought a house at 6, Rue de Brussels, near the Boulevard de Clichy and opposite the Folies Bergere, later extending it right through the block to the boulevard, building a grand house with courtyard, stables, a large sculpture studio on the ground floor and a large painting studio with a huge atelier window on the top floor.
Gérôme was appointed a professor at the École in 1864; he had 16 students, most presumably from his own independent atelier which he had started between 1860 and 1862.
In January 1868, entrusting his students to a good friend, he set off upon a three-and-a-half month excursion to the Middle East in the company of 8 other friends, including the young photographer Albert Goupil. By this time he had learned Arabic and was a seasoned traveler as well as a lively and convivial companion. Leaving from Marseilles, they disembarked at Alexandria and journeyed up the Nile to Cairo and Giza, taking photographs and sketching all the while.
Thence by train to Suez and a safari to Mount Sinai via the east bank of the Dead Sea, then ever onwards across the peninsula of Aquaba to Petra and finally to Jerusalem. Here he met the, by then, equally famous American painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), before leaving the group and heading home by ship from Jaffa to Marseilles with Albert Goupil. Returning to his studio in Paris, Gérôme developed a repertoire of "standard" pictures - single models posed with costumes and properties he had collected on his travels - all painted with meticulous care: Arabs, Arnauts, Almehs, merchants, Bashi-Bazouks, butcher boys - sitting, smoking, holding guns, tending dogs, or just standing there - and incorporating his props of rifles, side arms, hookas, vases, etc.
Gérôme was at the height of his career and in the autumn of 1869 he was invited to be among the distinguished group of French artistic and literary élite to see the opening of the Suez Canal.
When the war started the Gérôme family was already in their country home in Bougival, just outside Paris, where they had all their valuable possessions transferred. He worked there until he thought that the Germans were getting too close then took his wife and children to England, returning himself to aid with the defense of Paris. He didn't remain there long, however, and soon returned to London and his family, where he stayed until the summer of 1871, accepting the hospitality of Eyre Crowe. He had little knowledge of the English language himself and probably re-introduced himself to Lord Leighton, who spoke excellent French, and to Sir Edward Poynter, who had also studied with Gleyre in Paris. It was in London that he started his series of oriental bath scenes - usually incorporating two or more nudes in imagined baths - fantasy rooms full of coloured tiles, fountains and steam penetrated by light beams.
Soon after the siege of Paris finished in June 1871, the family returned to their home which had only suffered minor damage. Although he had not requested it, the home in Bougival had also been given special protection by the invading Prussians, either because of his fame or his being a knight in a Prussian order. He resumed his teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts which had earlier been abolished by the Commune. He also commenced re-building his professional reputation which had been somewhat damaged by his association with the fallen empire. He sent no exhibits to the Salon until 1874, in which the jury awarded him his second Gold Medal for three genre pieces set in the baroque era. Some critics objected that gold medals were not for genre painters. Hearing this while in Holland, he telegraphed home that he would not accept the prize. However they would not withdraw it, so he gave the medal, worth about 4000 francs in gold, to a student fund at the École.
Throughout this period he continued to travel: Turkey in the winter of 1871; Spain and Algiers in 1873; Holland in 1874 (to study Frans Hals); Turkey again in 1879; Egypt in 1880; perhaps to Greece in 1881; London in 1888; Sicily in 1890 (on the Duc d'Aumale's yacht); and Italy in 1889 (with François Flameng and Victor Clairin). Despite his constant travel and a series of illnesses - the dysentery acquired much earlier in Algiers recurring several times - he never ceased from his rigorous work habits. Twice a week he rode horseback across Paris to his classes at the École, looking so much like a cavalry officer that he was often saluted on the way. Indeed he became one of the major personalities of his time, being constantly in the newspapers.