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.
These selections are the introductory commentary and the biographical outline Shinn provided for the American edition of Gérome, and together they instantly became the most authoritative account of Gérôme’s life and work available in English up to that point, and remained so for many years after.
INTRODUCTORY AND CRITICAL.
SAINTE-BEUVE has somewhere a pleasant word on our modern rage for types.
"In the present day things march on swiftly, and you pass immediately into
a state of 'type.' We do not wait for fifty years of probation and quarantine;
you are a We at gunshot distance and on the morrow of your decease.
Type, in our mythology of abstractions, in our new aesthetic Pantheon,
is what was formerly called demigod, DIVUS. You have your altars.
A We no longer has defects. We criticise and cheapen an individual,
a genius in his personal and privaye capacity; we do not cheapen our types. Towards them there is an amnesty ready for everything, and everything belonging to them is transfigured We accept them in confidence; we do not give them advice; we do not discuss. They have attained their immutability; they are, because they are. They do not now have to make up and present their accounts. What was called an error yesterday, presto has changed its name, and become the plain trait of character and the signing thing, when once they are granted to be types. They are consecrated."
It would be pleasant to be able to hear what will be said of Gerome the painter when he has passed into his justification, and when the critics, who now exert themselves because there is a chance of correcting him, will have nothing to do but to estimate hint as a specimen.
To compass this, they will measure him by his central and higher