I once knew a brilliant architecture student who was working 24/7 on his thesis project. His family took him to see a play, just to “take his mind off the project”. On returning to the studio he said he didn’t remember much about the play, but that the design of the air handling system of the theater was so nifty that he was going to work it into his thesis project. His family had failed - his mind had remained “on” the project.
|Phryne before the Areopagus, 1861|
A similar mindset often affects me when viewing paintings; I am attracted by the buildings and objects that frame the subject of the painting. And, I am often disappointed by the crude misrepresentation of the context in an otherwise excellent painting. In other words I ignore the nude and ogle the floor tile. In that spirit, the following is the first of an ongoing series of posts highlighting the artists who have inspired me (with their tile work).
|Pollice Verso, 1872|
Jean-Leon Gerome, a late 19th century French painter, was the first Beaux Arts painter to catch my eye. While still a child I was fascinated by his painting of the gladiators called Pollice Verso , although I didn’t register his name at the time. I was also familiar with the old masters of Europe, but I later failed to see them as having much to say to me as an architect or architectural illustrator. Yes, Vermeer and Rembrandt had an eye for light, and Canaletto and Vernet had mastered panoramic cityscapes, but they all seemed to treat architecture as a secondary subject. Gerome on the other hand, was a revelation in his brash but realistic depiction of architecture.
|An Arab and his Dogs, 1875|
This posting is not meant to be a biography of Gerome, nor a critical essay. Instead I want to point out the lessons that are taught in a score of images. Most of the following paintings are examples of “orientalist” art; paintings of contemporary (19th century) middle eastern culture. Although Gerome was adept at academic and historical painting, his oriental paintings have always had an immediacy and realism that is valuable to an architectural illustrator.
|Harem in the Kiosk, 1870|
Gerome rarely painted a full view of a building, which was understandable since he was a painter, not an architect. The two examples of full buildings (above and below) show relatively human scaled structures which are beautifully rendered, but don’t overpower the human figures beside them. The Kiosk, above, is a study in detail, weathering and age, while the minaret, below, shows detail in shadow. Neither painting is particularly brilliant in its architectural delineation, but both use a correctly realized structure to frame the story he is telling.
|The Muezzin's Call to Prayer, 1879|
Gerome is on more solid ground when he renders the framing buildings with a flattening light. Prayer on the Housetops, below, creates a theatrical scrim to contrast with the almost silhouette of the men in the foreground. There is just enough detail to be convincing – a good rule to follow when developing any rendering.
|Prayer on the Housetops, 1865|
The painting below places the action in such a way that the buildings form an outdoor space. It could have been quite pedestrian except that Gerome has placed the sun so as to light the far pylon while keeping the people in the cool shaded area. The grading of the brightly lit wall from left to right, and the soft edged shadow on the pylon demonstrate an impressive understanding of the effects of late-day sun on masonry.
|The Pyrrhic Dance, late|
The Woman of Cairo at Her Door, below, is more than a subtly erotic view of a woman of the street, it is a close observation of light, both direct and indirect. As with the example above, the subject is kept in the cool shade, while the context takes a star turn. This compositional decision is worth considering in spite of the de-emphasis of the subject of the rendering. It essentially plays a game of “hide and seek” with the viewer, creating an entertainment rather than a boring snap-shot, lacking all mystery.
|Woman of Cairo at her Door, 1897|
Return from the Hunt, below, is a favorite of mine for both its exquisite balance of color and its really breathtaking portrayal of stonework at the top. Green is a dangerous color to allow dominance, but Gerome has made it work here. The contrasting reddish brown of the stone, dogs and jacket fix the green in its place. The three different color renderings of the stone carving is an audacious bit of painterly “showing off” and yet is a satisfying backdrop to the scene below.
|Return from the Hunt, 1875|
The image below is perhaps the most architectural image Gerome ever painted. The stone arched porch rendered with clearly cast shadows and reflected light on the back wall exemplify what any architect should know. The pigeons and harem ladies are just eye candy for the uninitiated.
|Harem Ladies feeding Pigeons in a Palace Courtyard, late|
The Carpet Merchant is another image I ran into years before becoming an architect. It is an interior view, but seems to be in a deep courtyard since there is soft light from somewhere above. It is interesting for the contrast between the confetti color of the robes and carpets, and the mottled age of the stonework. Also note the variegated surface of the white stones in the foreground and the whitewashed walls in the balcony.
|The Carpet Merchant, 1887|
The Reception of the Duc de Conde taking place under a large skylight at Versailles, is instructive in the grading and coloring of the staircase. The progression is from cool green-grey to a warm terracotta at the kings feet. The sparkle of people and the flat handling of the back wall are of less interest to me. You might look up The Grey Cardinal to see a rather dull rendering used in the service of storytelling.
|Reception of the Duc de Conde at Versailles, 1878|
Prayer in the Mosque is an excellent example of an interior lit softly by a high clearstory. Note the soft though correct shadows, the stone joints and the “over exposed” windows in the background. Also, the foreground stone describes a clear geometric pattern, but is faded so as to defer to the figures and continues the soft lighting pattern.
|Prayer in the Mosque, 1900|
Public Prayer in the Mosque of Amr Cairo is a similar venue, but lit from the right side by an open arcade. The one point perspective is slightly off center; always a good idea. And the simplicity of the perspective is offset by the figures and the almost abstract effect of the roof arches. The picture is grounded, appropriately enough, by the intricate stone pattern of the foreground. Although this is an interior view there is a distinct fading with distance which helps unify the scene.
|Public Prayer in the Mosque of Amr Cairo, 1870|
The dead tiger, below, is interesting, but the majority of the painting is taken up by a melancholy stage set which both reflects the emotional tone of the picture, but also describes the scale of the palace hall. The repetitive pattern of columns and candles creates a rhythm across the center of the painting. Such repetition of shapes from foreground to background can make a banal image into an interesting puzzle of shapes.
|The Grief of the Pasha, 1882|
I suppose some might be attracted by snakes and little boys, but to me the stone floor and the tile wall below, are just gorgeous. Tile work is especially hard to reproduce in a computer rendering, so observing a master capturing the surface effect is worth your while.
|The Serpent Charmer, 1880|
OK, I admit the pile of severed heads is arresting. My point in including this painting is the fascinating mix of pea-green and burnt sienna in the stone blocks. It is the application of an old rule, that any color field must include its compliment to avoid a deadly (pun alert) sameness. The handling of the sunlit space beyond in oranges, yellows and browns gets the point of sunlight across without blowing out the range of values.
|Heads of the Rebel Beys, 1866|
The guy in the party dress below is an Arnaut, an Albanian mercenary who fought for the Turks. You did not want to make fun of him back in his 19th century heyday. Although some might focus on the classy hookah he is enjoying, my interest is in the wooden grille behind. The white skirt is also a good example of white taking on all the colors of the surrounding room.
|Arnaut Smoking, 1865|
The Arnauts on guard below, is a useful reminder that brick should never be overbearing or too consistent. Besides that, the semi abstract additions to the screen above the far door are a needed invitation to whimsy not uncommon in Gerome’s oeuvre.
|Arnauts of Cairo at the Gate of Bab el Nasr, 1861|
Active from 1850 to the turn of the century, Gerome helped establish academy painting and teaching as a high art. The tragedy of Gerome’s career was that he lived long enough to become an antagonist to the “modern” movements. In spite of the negative judgment of 20th century critics, Gerome is an astonishingly creative artist working within a demanding discipline. He obviously studied and reworked tirelessly. His sense of composition, color and reality is unsurpassed. His self-discipline and self confidence was legendary, which may have been the reason the "anything-goes" modern art world could not accept him.
|Arabs crossing the Desert, 1870|
Or perhaps his pains-takingly rational recording of the human comedy did not fit with the wild flailing of the “fin de siecle” world. But if his detractors would have looked closely, they might have seen the freewheeling mind moving underneath the masterly order. In any case, Gerome is highly valued in the reemerging world of realistic art.