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.
The relevance of this selection for a study of Egyptomania is obvious: it depicts the Egyptian queen Cleopatra standing in front of the Roman general Julius Caesar. This scene was (and still is) one of the most famous scenes from the life of Cleopatra: the young Cleopatra, with the help of her servant Apollodorus, has smuggled herself past the posted Roman guard, and has been unrolled from her hiding place of either rugs before Julius Caesar. Caesar has taken control of Cleopatra’s own palace, and Cleopatra will soon, famously, seduce him and make of him a powerful ally as well as her lover.
In the host of representations of this famous scene, Apollodorus is depicted as servant, friend, or slave, depending on the source, but here he is clearly a slave: crouching and servile, setting off Cleopatra’s beauty and whiteness. Cleopatra herself was the source of numerous speculations regarding her racial identity, but what is interesting here is how, even though she is a queen, she seems to be standing as a slave herself, before a potential purchaser. Every viewer of this image would have known the basic story of Cleopatra – powerful, seductive, and eventual suicide – and this plainly erotic image conjured up a wide range of racial and sexual fantasies regarding the famous details of her titillating and tragic life. This is classic Egyptomania: sex, slavery, nudity, and decadence.
CLEOPATRA BEFORE CAESAR.
This painting possesses unusual interest for the admirers of Gerome,
as being on a larger canvas, and containing figures of a larger scale,
than any of his finished easel pictures. To say that it is on canvas is, however, to strain a point, since it is painted, as we learn,
on silk, and only backed with cloth for strength. It was ordered
and executed for one of the sumptuous modern hotels of Paris, that
of Mme. de Paiva, being intended as a transparency to be lowered or
raised midway of a long saloon, which it was desirable to divide occasionally into two. Not accustomed to painting transparencies as may well be credited, Gerome failed to satisfy his capricious patroness, and the picture, fortified with canvas and very much cut down at the top, made its way into
commerce. It is now installed as a centre-piece in a rich picture gallery decorated by Herter, in the country villa of Mr. D. O. Mills, at
Millbrae, near San Francisco.
The "Cleopatra and Caesar" is conspicuous, too, as having inspired the first hearty encomium that can be remembered as being paid by an English poet to a French painting. When Mr. Browning caressed this picture with tongues of, fire, in Fifine, but a short time had elapsed since the Laureate, whose Gallophobia has found