In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte set out to invade Egypt as a means to reduce British influence in the Mediterranean, but he also believed that it shouldn’t be just a military conquest and should have educational and scientific goals. Along with his army he set up the Sciences and art commission of the army of the east which was 167 members strong. From this expedition they started to publish Description de L’Egypte (Description of Egypt) in 1802, a ten volume book of what they saw and found.
This started a rage for all things about the near east, which they called the Orient, and inspired the golden age of Orientalist painting. Jean-Leon Gerome was taken with the fad and became possibly the most famous Orientalist painter.
Arab Purchasing a Bridle is one of my favorites by Jean-Leon Gerome. I love the way he’s split the composition into three main values. The white of the horse, the diagonal middle tone from lower left to upper right and the two shadow areas on the top left and lower right corners. The shadow areas are key to this painting since they relieve the eye from some of the almost too crisp details he tends to get in some of his paintings.
The Serpent Charmer might be his most known work, and also one of his most controversial. It has been maligned as having a hidden sexual meaning between the boy and the men watching, it has been pointed out that it combines Egyptian, Turkish, and Indian elements as as such is a “complete fiction”, and (along with Orientalism in general) shows the superiority of colonial culture over those that were colonized since it was painted by a Frenchman.
Much of these thoughts and criticisms are being overturned in recent years since they are not supported by historical evidence and it is being recognized that Orientalism as a genre has been used as a whipping boy to prop up a political agenda.
And it astounds me that the true subject of the painting, that magnificent blue wall, gets overlooked by critics. The boy’s hand and the head of the snake are practically pointing at it, and Gerome has even added the weapons on the wall to stop your eye and make sure you see it. Viewed in this context the men and boy serve as compositional devices and an excuse so we are not left wondering why the artist painted just a wall if they had been left out.
Bonaparte Before the Sphinx brings us back to Napoleon. Gerome wasn’t born until 1824 so this is a scene he imagined took place.
I love that the Sphinx is not yet excavated and that no archaeologists have dug trenches or marked off grids. This is the spirit of exploration as one man confronts something both amazing and mysterious at the same time. Which for me is the true heart of the painting, and Orientalism as a whole.