The Greatest Lovers in Art History, from Frida Kahlo and Auguste Rodin to Nan Goldin
A young woman bathes atop a roof terrace in this masterfully composed work by the great French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. His subject is Bathsheba, the Old Testament beauty with a dramatic tale who becomes King David’s wife and the mother of Solomon. Gérôme paints her as David first glimpses her, washing on a rooftop in the open air, and it is this sight that causes him to fall passionately in love with her. Brilliantly conceived, the oil on canvas brings together Gérôme’s aptitude for narrative painting with his incomparable virtuosity for capturing the female nude.
While Bathsheba’s tale is ultimately one of seduction, adultery, and murder, the biblical anecdote plays a secondary role compared to Gérôme’s exploration of the female nude. Scenes of the bath were central to his output, likely inspired by his 1879 visit to the Grand Baths in Bursa. Filled with groups of female bathers naturally posed in various stages of undress, these Orientalist works – such as La Grande Piscine à Bursa shown to great acclaim at the Paris Salon of 1885 - are considered among the best of his oeuvre. Gérôme’s Bethsabée embodies the inherent sensuality and academic idealism of these stunning compositions.
Unlike his bath scenes, however, the present work is situated en plein air, which allowed Gérôme to demonstrate his aptitude for capturing the effects of light on his subject’s luminous white skin. Perhaps the greatest painter of flesh from his age, Gérôme’s masterful application of texture, color tones, and chiaroscuro brings his idealized subject to life on canvas. He ingeniously utilized a glass-walled studio at his summer estates in order to explore the effects of natural light on his nude models, and his studies are certainly well utilized in the present work. In the distance, Gérôme composed a vaguely Oriental skyline bathed in warm light, and its geometric outline provides the perfect contrast to the sinuous curves of his subject.
While hints of her story are glimpsed in the painting’s details, Bathsheba herself is unquestionably the central focus of the composition. Exactingly rendered, the work is among the most important examples of Gérôme’s mastery over the female form. Beginning in the 1870s, his experimentation in sculpture enhanced his already robust knowledge of human anatomy and form, and his intense study is clearly seen in the curves and musculature of his Bathsheba. In fact, Gérôme was so pleased with the final figure and her contrapposto pose that he later executed her in plaster. While the original is now lost, a version is on display at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York.
One of the most prominent French academic painters of the 19th century, Gérôme is today credited with fashioning an entirely new artistic ideology. One of the originators of the Orientalist style, Gérôme was also a stalwart defender of Academic painting, which was waning under the rise of Realism and Impressionism. Inspired by the year he spent in Rome with Paul Delaroche in 1834, he developed an insatiable appetite for traveling, and throughout his career, he traveled widely in Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa. His years exploring the Near East inspired his greatest Orientalist works, his Moorish and Turkish bath scenes.
A sculptor as well as a painter, his female figures have the same classical precision of Ingres but are executed with a more pronounced sensuality and realism. Enjoying great popularity and success during his lifetime, he was actively courted and patronized by private collectors and nobility. Today, the majority of Gérôme's works are held in major museums, with very few remaining in private hands. Once owned by French sculptor and painter Antonin Mercié and later by Yvonne Coty, wife of the famed perfumer François Coty, this masterpiece is an extraordinary find.
Signature: Signed J.L. Gérôme (lower left)
The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1892, by F. Field Hering, p. 213
The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme with a Catalogue Raisonné, 1986, by G. M. Ackerman, p. 262, no. 355, catalogued
Jean-Léon Gérôme: Monographie révisée, Catalogue raisonné mis à jour, 2000, by G. M. Ackerman, p. 320, no. 355, catalogued
Eugène Lyon, Brussels
Antonin Mercié, Paris
Yvonne Coty, Paris
Private collection, London
M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans
When Jean-Léon Gérôme visited Egypt for the first time, he became enraptured with what he saw and began making the Orientalist paintings for which he is now famous. Gérôme’s oeuvre included a wide number of subjects, including history, Greek mythology, and portraiture—many of which would feature his signature, sumptuous female nudes. He was hailed for his ability to render theatrical narrative scenes with luminous figures; some of his compositions were so successful that he recycled them in various iterations. Gérôme also produced ornate figural sculptures with materials like ivory, metal, precious stones, gold, and silver. Among the most officially honored French artists of his time, Gérôme studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, as well as under Paul Delaroche and Charles Gleyre.
French , 1824-1904, Vesoul, France, based in Paris, France