Jean-Leon Gerome’s ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’: Universes of Content

Gerome was engaged with internal artistic questions, with problems of representation, with the place of eros in the mechanism of creation, and with the modern look the painting casts on his technique.

Jonathan Hirschfeld

When I saw Jean-Leon Gerome’s “Pygmalion and Galatea” (1890) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2009, I told myself that it was a political metaphor about late 19th-century Frenchmen, who were looking with dread and astonishment at what they had wrought: the Third Republic. What had been a vision and a legendary image came to life before their eyes in the form of the statue of Galatea.

Today I have a different opinion. Maybe not completely different, because the new thoughts do not supplant the old ones but are superimposed on them. In other words, in addition to the political allegory, I now see in the painting subtleties, shades, additional universes of content.

I understand Gerome increasingly as an artist who is engaged with internal artistic questions, with problems of representation, with the place of eros in the mechanism of creation, and with the modern look the painting casts on his technique.

In general, I tend to interpret Gerome from within the technique, from within the life of art, from within the history of art. I find that the interpretations that derive from external fields – historical, political, sociological – become increasingly bland and insipid.

A splendid example of understanding the painting from the technique is Galatea’s body. Gerome, like many members of what was referred to as the French school of academicism at the time, and in particular like his colleague Ingres, executes parts of his painting in grisaille – that is, in shades of gray and white – so that the painting actually acquires the look of a sculpture or relief. He applies the paint in delicate, transparent glazes, enabling him to create an effect of stratification and ultimately to produce a painting that is very rich in terms of colorfulness but flat and glass-like in terms of its surface.

The body of Galatea, in contrast, remains in grisaille lower down, and in this way the artist tells us how he vitalizes the elements in the work by means of paint. It’s absolutely marvelous that the painting, whose theme is the coming-to-life of an image, reveals the technique by which the painter accomplished this feat.

Gerome lived within the history of art, but it is not in his nature to use quotations or to appropriate works as such into his paintings. With rare exceptions, such as his work “Michelangelo Showing a Student the Belvedere Torso,” Gerome makes do with gentle probes. Especially in a painting that purports to possess a certain degree of period “rightness” and tries to avoid anachronisms.

In a previous column here, I commented on a certain connection between Gerome and Caravaggio, notably the latter’s “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew.” And here, in this Gerome painting, we see the shield of Medusa on the floor, leaning against the wall.

Caravaggio’s painting of Medusa is perhaps one of the most saliently ars poetica works in the history of art. The Medusa, like the painter, turns whatever she sees into stone. In this sense, Caravaggio’s “Medusa” is almost a self-portrait, through which the artist speaks to us not only about being a monster in his own eyes, and about his power to devitalize whatever his gaze encounters, but – and this is the context of the shield here – about how that gaze is his ruin. For as soon as the Medusa’s look was reflected back at her from a mirror, she herself turned to stone.

The Medusa’s shield adds another layer to Gerome’s painting: The painter de-animates, the painter revitalizes, the painter kills, the painter is sacrificed on the altar of the painting. Perhaps there is also a political allusion here. For Galatea greatly resembles “Marianne,” the feminine emblem of the French Republic. Are there warning signs here about things that are born unnaturally and might become monsters, or end in disaster? The various Frankenstein stories come to mind, as does E.T.A. Hoffman’s story about Olimpia, the mechanical doll.

Perhaps the classical pastoral scene in the style of Nicolas Poussin that is hanging on the wall also says something: that there was a time, in classical Greece, when images truly were gods, when the fantastic was routine and art was an object of belief. And democracy prevailed.

Which is to say that “Pygmalion and Galatea” is a political text precisely because it is a painting that relates how one paints, driven by dread of eros, which takes images and transforms them into reality.