ODALISKEN – 017
Jean-Léon Gérôme (Vesoul, 11 mei 1824 – Parijs, 10 januari 1904) was een Frans schilder en beeldhouwer. In 1865 werd Gérôme verkozen als lid van het Institut de France. Hij stierf op 79-jarige leeftijd en werd begraven op het Cimetière de Montmartre. Jean-Léon Gérôme schilderde in 1885 ‘La grande piscine à Brusa’ (70 x 100 cm), dat in datzelfde jaar in de Salon de Paris werd tentoongesteld. Het Oriëntalisme was toen zo’n beetje op zijn hoogtepunt, dus het schilderij zal ongetwijfeld erg populair geweest zijn, vooral bij het gedeelte van de kunstliefhebbers die met afschuw kennis namen van de snelle opkomst van de impressionistische ‘barbaren’. Het schilderij werd direct door de Russische tsaar Alexander III aangekocht voor zijn toch al omvangrijke privé-collectie. Nadat de communisten aan de macht kwamen hing het van 1918 tot 1930 in de Hermitage in Sint Petersburg. In februari 1943 duikt het schilderij op als bezit van Gimbel Brothers in New York. De reden van deze verkoop blijft onduidelijk. Van 1982-1989 is ‘La grande piscine à Brusa’ in het bezit van Paul H. Buchanan, een rechter uit Indianapolis, die het uitleent aan het Museum of Indianapolis. In 1989 wordt het voor een bedrag van 1.909.600 Britse ponden door Sotheby’s verkocht en is sindsdien in (onbekend) privé-bezit.
Ten years after his first trip to Turkey in 1875, Gérôme produced the most celebrated and impressive of his bath scene paintings, La Grande piscine à Brusa. Exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1885, Fanny Field Hering recalled in her 1892 monograph on Gérôme that the picture ‘aroused the most enthusiastic admiration’ and declared that it was ‘probably the most remarkable of his pictures in this genre’ (Hering, p. 247).
This splendid evocation of ladies lounging around an octagonal hot pool in a Turkish bath is set under the great dome of the caldarium in Yeni Kaplica, Bursa’s ‘New Baths’ built in 1552 from designs possibly by the Master Builder Sinan (see also lots 140 and 144 for other constructions by Sinan). Bursa had been the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. By the time the present work was executed in 1885 Gérôme had moved away from heroic history painting towards archeological accuracy and objective realism. That is not to say that he adhered to Courbet’s transitory school of Realism – the poses and finish of Gérôme’s nudes remain grounded in academic idealism – but rather that he paid greater attention to the ensemble; he studied the relation of the figures to their costumes, to the floors and to the walls and accessories around them. The room is in a real building depicted as it looked during Gérôme’s lifetime, and the activities of the women are as close to everyday life as Gérôme could imagine. The nudes are carefully studied, well placed, delightfully posed and painted and, in Gerald Ackerman’s opinion, ‘the standing nude in the foreground is a singular accomplishment among Gérôme’s many fine nudes’; the ensemble is subtle in line, shape and colour.Gérôme’s inspiration for this monumental composition was almost certainly sparked by his 1879 visit to Bursa. During this sojourn he not only sketched some of the older monuments of the town including the Green Mausoleum of Mehemet I but documented the interior of the New Baths in an oil sketch that has since been lost. Fréderic Masson records an entertaining account by Gérôme (probably in a letter) of this experience: During a stay in Bursa, I was taken by the architecture of the baths, and they certainly offered a chance to study nudes. It wasn’t just a question of going to see what was going on inside, and of replacing [some men by some women], I had to have a sketch of this interior; and since the temperature inside was rather high, I didn’t hesitate to sketch in the simple apparel of a beauty just aroused from her sleep—that is, in the buff. Sitting on my tripod, my paint box on my knees, my palette in my hand, I was a little grotesque, but you have to know how to adapt yourself as necessary. I had the idea of painting my portrait in this costume, but I dropped it, fearing that my image (dal vero) might get me too much attraction and launch me in a career as a Don Juan. (Masson, p. 30)
The subject of La Grande piscine was not uncommon in 19th Century painting; Delacroix, Ingres and Chassériau (see lot 108) had already received critical acclaim for their various nudes set in Turkish interiors. Ingres’ famous rendering of this subject in 1862 (fig. 1) is an exotic fantasy of voluptuous flesh and writhing bodies. In contrast with this and even Gérôme’s other bath scenes, the composition of La Grande piscine seems devoid of lasciviousness or even the mildest evocation of eroticism: the nudes are not shown as examples of primitive sensuality as is the tradition in depicting bath scenes; they do not writhe and pose in erotic deprivation or anticipation; they are simply engaged in the social activity of spending the day at the bath. They stand and move around or settle down in casual, unself-conscious poses, like people relaxing at a bath. Of the some twenty women depicted, only one, seated on the basket chair to the right, has a bit of self-conscious coyness about her pose.
It seems likely that Gérôme, working in the bath on Men’s Day, naturally, observed the casual society of the male bathers around him in the warm, steamy space. Their relaxed deportment gave him a clue as to the behaviour of the women on their day. The women stand and converse, walk about, smoke a hookah, or gather in gregarious gatherings on the niche benches; or sit on the edge of the pool with their feet dangling in the water. Two have hopped or walked into the hot water, and stay cautiously half-emerged.
The composition centres on the standing couple to the right, with the dazzling contrast of a black arm crossing a white back as a personal slave puts her arm around her unsteady mistress both in support and affection, while the pair, standing on their ornate pattens to prevent them from slipping, stops their circumnavigation of the pool. The self-composure and haughty glance of the standing white nude over her shoulder seems to attract the interest of the bathers in the pool, drawing the viewer into the intimate circle of gazes. The circular movement around the pool, directed by the turned heads unites the composition around a central event, as in a formal history painting.
The contrast of the light and dark skin is dazzling, as well as being an acutely transmitted tactile experience. Although Lynne Thornton argues that this contrast was a social and historical statement and that it would not have shocked the public as it did in the contemporary European context of Manet’s Olympia (Thornton, p. 76), Ruth Bernard Yeazell claims of Gérôme’s work that ‘while the half-nudity of the black figure duly contributes to the viewer’s seduction, there is no question that she is designed, in every sense of the word, to serve her fairer companion’ (Harems of the Mind, New Haven, 2000, p. 105). The African’s black arm draped around the pearly-white Circassian’s waist heightens the appeal of the model’s sensuously-poised rear.
The London Athenæum recognized the masterful quality of the main protagonist, reporting ‘this young bather is one of the best figures M. Gérôme has ever painted, so clear, firm, elastic, and rosy. It is exquisitely drawn and modeled with the utmost choiceness, refinement, and research.’ Indeed she is expertly drawn, caught in the contrapposto evoked by the imbalance of her uneasy stance and her skeletal and muscular adjustment to the support of the slave’s shoulder: all this unconscious physical activity is dominated by her glance over to the woman in the pool. The action caught is as subtle as it is masterful. This nude is rivaled in beauty if not in complexity only by the nude seen from the rear in the Vente d’esclaves à Rome of 1886 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore) (fig. 2).
Instead of portraying his models in erotic poses, Gérôme observes the movement of muscle and flesh as the body turns, and records the manner in which light falls on the skin. The structure of bones, the mechanism of the musculature, and the flexibility of the skin were wonders, beauties of nature to be observed, studied and reported. Gérôme’s skill in portraying the human body encouraged him (and his friend Degas) to sometimes place their models in awkward positions to reveal, in full splendour, the anatomy of the human body. Gerald Ackerman has suggested that the wonderful nude figure in La Grande piscine is a criticism and correction of the awkward standing slave in Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger of 1834 in the Louvre (fig. 3). This seems likely considering that Gérôme once corrected Manet’s foreshortening of a horse in one of his own paintings.
Gérôme’s nudes of the eighties benefited from the intense study of the nude he had taken up as he started to sculpt in the late 1870s. This foreground pair is, of course, carefully and precisely painted based on studio drawings (see fig. 4 for a working pencil sketch of a variation on the final pose of the main nude), but every other prominent nude in the picture seems the result of study and sketches; particularly those in the water and around the pool (figs. 5). Although Gérôme sketched the interior of the baths in detail while in Bursa, his studies of the female nudes along with the finished painting would have been executed back in his Paris studio. Gérôme knew a good model when he had one, and he unabashedly and joyfully puts her in everywhere, in the water, on the floor, and in the recesses of the building. The space is large and full of steam caught by rays of light coming through the small glazed windows high above. The water is brightly glaucous despite the foggy vapour in the air, illuminated by streaks of light from small windows up high. On top of all these achievements – great perspective, the exact placement in space of each figure, nudes in a variety of poses and activities – the composition is held together by Gérôme’s organisation of the figures and the event, and his rigorously controlled but subtle colour. The sophistication of the composition is helped by a clever device: the placement of the standing couple off centre to the right, while the centre is held down by one of the great stone piles supporting the dome (forming a compositional vertical reinforced by a hookah and the back of the foreground woman in the pool). Throughout the composition, Gérôme’s immense skill as a painter and draughtsman is backed up by his equally sharp intelligence.
Hering recalls her first glimpse of La Grande Piscine à Brusa at the Salon exhibition: We well remember strolling through the Palais de l’Industrie, on a gloomy, rainy morning, that reminded one of London, and suddenly exclaiming, ‘The weather must be clearing!’ But the sound of the steady downpour soon undeceived us and we found that the warm light shone out from a large canvas on the opposite side of the room. It seemed to fill the whole gallery with its sunny rays, so wonderful was the refraction from the great pool of water and the rising vapour. (Hering, p. 247)
In his analysis of La Grande Piscine à Brusa Ackerman remarks: ‘none of the other bath scenes by Gérôme seem to be based on such objective thought and observation; the baths in most of them are—as was proper for the genre—usually hot houses of licentious longing and fantasy but not of activity, for they are male bereft. In fact, when Tsar Alexander III bought this picture from Gérôme, he already owned another bath scene that was in the traditional bath scene genre – that is, deliberately lascivious, Femmes au bain (fig. 6). He bought the painting after the Paris Salon of 1876.’
Extolling the outstanding merits of the present work, Ackerman continues: ‘although Gérôme’s Oriental bathing scenes are among the most popular and famous of his subjects, they actually number together fewer than thirty paintings—that is, less than half of one percent of his oeuvre. Of all these often splendid bathing scenes, La Grande Piscine à Brusa is the largest, the best composed, the most intelligently arranged, the most interesting, or, in sum, the most wonderful.’