Not All Artists Are Flunkies of the Zeitgeist

Was Jean-Leon Gerome an Orientalist painter who perpetuated the rule of the white man in the East, as postmodernist critics claim?

In her 1983 article “The Imaginary Orient,” which gained no little fame in certain circles, American art historian Linda Nochlin berated the Orientalist painter Jean-Leon Gerome. There is insufficient space here to address the full complexity of Nochlin’s thesis. That said, my aim in this column – the last in a trilogy devoted to Gerome – is to debunk her two principal arguments.

Her first argument addresses Gerome’s realism. The aim of this realism, produced by consummate technical proficiency, is said by Nochlin to consolidate the supremacy of the white man (the subject, the observer) over the Oriental (the object, the observed).

Her second argument is that the various themes that involve depictions of nudity are intended to eroticize (and possibly also to exoticize) the Orient, and thereby to entrench the control of the male gender over the female and, by implication, to create an analogy: As men rule women, so the rational West rules the sensual East. These are serious arguments, lucidly set forth, not nonsense to be lightly dismissed.

Let’s look at Gerome’s “The Slave Auction” (on view at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg). This is not an Orientalist painting. This common theme in Gerome – of trafficking in slave women, as seen in paintings in which a woman appears naked before a crowd of male buyers – is ostensibly shifted to Rome here.

Did Gerome wish to exercise his realism to show supremacy over the Romans? Was he out to paint Roman culture in hues of exotic eroticism? Not likely. This is the place to mention that not only is this not a lone example of this theme in a Roman context, but – and this is an essential point – in most of the paintings whose story line concerns the sale of women, the woman depicted is distinctly and unequivocally European.

There’s no way around it: A male viewer of these paintings would have seen in them his daughter, his wife, his sister. In this particular painting, French facial features are particularly prominent. Only a Frenchman made of stone would not have felt a pang at the sight of the seated girl, pressing her knees up against her chest, humiliated, worn out, hurting. Realism here serves love of humanity and carries no message of supremacy. Yet if we heed Linda Nochlin’s reading, we would have to identify this work as Orientalist and chauvinistic.

My reading, in contrast, is that the painting depicts the horror of trafficking in women. It does so by deifying the bondwoman (via her nude positioning in the center of the composition with a wreath on her head), by giving her a French look and by means of the empathy aroused by the girl on the ground.

Like Napoleon’s faceless soldiers in Goya’s painting of an execution, “The Third of May 1808,” the buyers of the women in the Gerome painting are also faceless men. (To Israeli and other contemporary eyes they might seem to be giving the Nazi salute.) The auctioneer, too, reminds viewers familiar with the history of art of the features and attributes (baldness, yellow toga) of Judas Iscariot.

The difference between Nochlin’s reading and mine reflects the difference in our outlook on art and artists. She thinks that artists are flunkies of the Zeitgeist, products and agents of a ruling apparatus of knowledge and power, and that art is a means of control. My view is that there is a long tradition of subversion within the history of art, found in the DNA of the artistic image, which often operates with the powers-that-be and from within the powers-that-be – but against them.

Like Michelangelo, who filled the ceiling of the place in which God’s earthly representative is chosen, with homoerotic content, and like Velasquez, who exposed the ruthlessness of Pope Innocent X by way of his gaze, and like Goya, a court painter who produced some of the most anti-royalist paintings imaginable – so too Gerome.

This concludes the Gerome trilogy. It’s concluded but not completed: There is still more to write about the delicate work of creating images that subvert themselves in a way that the powers-that-be cannot appropriate. Not even the most professional art haters from the departments of sociology and gender studies can get the better of them.