Donkey-Boy at Cairo

Earl Shinn ["Edward Strahan"], Gerome: A Collection of the works of J.L Gerome in One Hundred Photogravures. Multiple Volumes. New York: Samuel L. Hall, 1881.

The visual arts were one of the most active sites for nineteenth-century American Egyptomania. Because so many of the discoveries in nineteenth-century Egyptology were visual in nature – ancient ruins, massive structures, stone carvings, even hieroglyphics – and because these discoveries took place in striking natural areas – deserts, oases, river valleys – painters and other illustrators found a wealth of potential subjects. But the sites of Egyptomania were not just ancient or ruined; an important aspect of Egyptomania was the interest Americans took in the modern sites of the Nile Valley as well; Cairo and other urban centers were busy and densely populated in the 1800s, and were home to a mix of cultures rarely seen in highbrow American painting. Whether positioned in contrast to the ancient sites or used as ways of showing how “degenerated” the area had become since ancient times, the cultures of nineteenth-century Egypt – bazaars, harems, camel-drives, Islam – were essential raw materials for American constructions of northern Africa and Egypt. And almost without exception, the visual conventions and modes for illustrating contemporary Egypt fell under the heading of what today scholars call Orientalism: depictions of Arab cultures which emphasized exoticism, strangeness, foreignness, and difference, all intended to convey messages of racial and cultural inferiority.

No single figure was more important in the history of nineteenth-century painterly Orientalism than Jean-Léon Gérôme. Born in 1824, Gérôme was a French painter who worked mostly in oil, and was internationally known and massively influential: he taught students from all over Europe and America, and became a celebrity among the French aristocracy. In a period which is known for both the end of neoclassicism and the rise of impressionism, Gérôme and his signature style were instantly recognizable: his painterly style was highly realistic, with precisely rendered faces, bodies, buildings, and landscapes, and his paintings had a highly glossy finish which to twentieth- and twenty-first century viewers might seem like photographs; his most commonly rendered subjects were the exoticized, eroticized figures of Orientalism. Gérôme is known for nude slave girls, harem scenes, scenes of beautifully rendered poverty and economic oppression, and a whole host of other images which quickly became stereotypes of “the Orient,” all conveying a sense of mysterious and dangerous sensuality, and all comprised of a mix of decadence and savagery.

In 1881, an American edition of Gérôme’s paintings were issued in the United States, in a lavishly illustrated multi-volume edition edited by American art critic Earl Shinn, writing under the pseudonym Edward Strahan. The illustrations were photogravures – finely rendered black-and-white engravings often suitable for framing – and Shinn wrote lengthy captions for each painting, as well as the introduction to the ten-volume set. Entitled Gérome: A Collection of the works of J. L. Gérome in One Hundred Photogravures, this was a special edition, limited to only 1000 copies, and was very expensive and rare; the copy from which these selections are taken is copy number 435, was printed for James L. Little, Jr., and is as of this writing currently in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum of the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, D. C.

This selection is a relatively recognizable form of Orientalist imagery: the ethnographic portrait. Devoid of any overt sense of sex, the emphasis here is on the mere fact of this boy’s existence – a fact that Strahan explores at some length in his commentary – which is portrayed as somehow both poignant and inevitable, both sad and natural. The approach is a kind of precise realism, almost scientific in its detail, and thus forms a clear link between the romanticized invocations of “the exotic Orient” and the clinical analysis of “the savage races.”



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Pient par J.L. Gerome

DONKEY BOY AT CAIRO

New York Samuel L. Hall

Photograuvure Goupil & C.

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