Friday, April 24, 2015

In Living Color

Throughout the history of art, the ability to render something in a way that brings it to life has been a much desired effect. In the story of Pygmalion and Galatea an artist so loves his statue of a flawless marble woman that he begs the gods to give to him a wife that is like his masterpiece. Seeing his love for Galatea, the gods take pity on Pygmalion and transform his beloved statue into a living woman whom he can unashamedly love. This story seems to play a role in the act of painting as a whole and how it "breathes life into sculpture." As an artist in the Academy in the late 1800s, the ability to produce such a masterpiece was vital for success. The paintings of Jean Leon Gérôme skillfully depict scenes that cause the viewer to believe what is before them. They are heavily shrouded in narrative and rendered in such a flawless manner that they mesmerize the viewer, beckoning them to reach out and touch the paint that breathes before them. In a series of paintings, Gérôme inserts himself into scenes in which he is devotedly working on some form of beautiful marble sculpture reminiscent of Galatea. This combination of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea and his self portraits create an interesting question, was Gérôme himself inflicted with an attachment to his work in the same way that Pygmalion was? These paintings not only demonstrate how Gérôme desired to bring sculpture to life through painting, but also suggest that he himself was becoming a part of a bigger narrative. The care that is placed in the rendering of his pieces and the continued appearance of himself in conversation with marble women throws Gérôme into a myth of his own.

Jean Leon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea (Study), 1890

oil on canvas, Location Unknown

Similar to many previous depictions of Pygmalion and Galatea, this "Study" exhibits a continuation of a myth by way of its composition and color palette. Here a forward facing Galatea is caught in the embrace of her creator, Pygmalion, who has only just abandoned his sculpting tool. The brushstrokes used possess a more rough and hurried quality than some of his other works, nonetheless Galatea remains to be flawlessly rendered. Her intensely pale body captures the viewer's attention and allows their eyes to travel up the contours of her perfect figure and explore the painting in a circular motion. Masks and statues referencing several of Gérôme's other paintings as well as mythology display his interest in narrative and his ability to bring to life a story through painting.

Jean Leon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890

Oil on canvas. Met Museum, Accession Number: 27.200

Completed in 1890 after "Pygmalion and Galatea (study)," this finished work visually arrests the viewer and suspends them in the moment of tension that is before them. Echoes of the "Study" are seen as the composition unfolds in a circular fashion. One is captured by the beautiful stone feet of Galatea, led by the arch in her back to her beloved and on to the cupid floating to the couple's right as well as the presence of the many repeated artifacts that continuously appear. Several masks and sculptures from other Greek myths surround the couple heightening a sense of narrative. The depiction of Galatea from behind is a rarity among this narrative's counterparts throughout history. Because the viewer cannot see the face of Pygmalion's beloved statue, the painting's narrative intensifies and Galatea's identity is suspended ambiguously. 

Jean Leon Gérôme, Working in Marble, or The Artist Sculpting "Tanagra," 1890-93 

Oil on Canvas, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York

Gérôme's choice in referencing "Pygmalion and Galatea" as an artist in the academy is one that is very fitting. The artists of the academy were striving to create works that were so real that they themselves would come to life. The depiction of Gérôme in conversation with a marble woman as well as a model displays his ability as a sculptor and his ability to paint in such a way that is believable. He clearly distinguishes the real subject matter from the marble figure on which he is working, but he still draws the viewer in by creating a seemingly tangible reality. In the background, several masks and sculptures that appear in many other of Gérôme's paintings are displayed. The "Study" itself hangs in the background reinforcing the connection between the creator, the creation and the skill with which his work is rendered.

Jean Leon Gérôme, The End of the Sitting, 1886

oil on canvas, Private collection: Ackerman, cat. no. 348, 1886

The composition of this painting echoes many compelling components that are both informed by Gérôme's previous paintings and found later. The choice to reference Pygmalion and Galatea in his self portraits creates a unique interplay between the living model before him and the statue that is coming to life. His choice to paint the female figure from behind as well as the covering of the statue's face brings a sense of ambiguity to the identity of the two women that is also found in "Pygmalion and Galatea." This depiction heightens the relationship between the creator and the created in a unique way both referencing classical mythology as well as its setting in the reality of his personal studio. 

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Painting Breathes Life into Sculpture, 1893

Oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario

Although not a direct self portrait, this painting does relay many ideas referencing Gérôme as well as his "series" of self portraits and his ability to superimpose myth and reality. The artifacts surrounding the woman reappear in several other paintings. The figure, Tanagra, that Gérôme was sculpting in "Working in Marble" sits off to the right with a rosy glow that makes her look as if she were alive. Hoop dancers are coming to life by the hand of a painter, and masks again lie in a box with their mouths agape, as in "Pygmalion and Galatea." Though this piece does show how painting breathes life into sculpture, it is on a very minute scale. This hints to the fact that Gérôme believed his work to be inadequate and furthers the thought that his self portraits reflected his own personal myth and longing for his work to come to life. 

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Self-Portrait Painting The Ball Player, c. 1902

oil on canvas, Museé Gorges Garret

Here the union of painting and sculpture once again is displayed, thus connecting this painting to the previous portraits as well as Gérôme's 1893 "Painting Breathes Life into Sculpture. The reference to Pygmalion is unmistakable, but the narrative is heightened as the sculpture comes to life by the hands of the artist rather than a goddess. The figure's marble glow causes the viewer to believe that this is indeed a sculpture, however, unlike the other self portraits, the figure's dark brown "hair" elevates the idea that this woman may not actually be a sculpture at all. Her gaze falls upon Gérôme who is no longer the observer, but is devotedly working on what he believes to be a sculpture. 

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