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A bashi-basouk by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1869 (wikiart.org)



Black bashi-basouk by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1868 (MMA, NY)

There have long been war artists. In North Africa, Horace Vernet (30 June 1789 – 17 January 1863) painted the battles that led to the French conquest of Algiers which had been part of the Ottoman Empire until 1830. The French did not conquer Lebanon and Syria, their future protectorates, but these countries had belonged to the Roman/ Byzantine Empire (330-1204 and 1261-1453) that fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. After World War I, Britain and France would partition the defeated Ottoman Empire into protectorates. (See Zykes-Picot Agreement, Wikipedia.)

Exoticism and Orientalism

Vernet had painted the battles that led to the conquest of Algiers, at which point he became an Orientalist. Colonialism was Eurocentrism, but exoticism was ethnocentrism and it is a characteristic of the 19th century, expressed in several areas: the fine arts, music, and design in general.

Jean-Léon Gérôme

I have mentioned Horace Vernet, the painter of battles fought in Algeria. There were in fact many Orientalists in various fields. However, our featured artist is French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904).

French-born Jean-Léon Gérôme is associated with Academicism. He did not join avant-garde movements. He, in fact, applied for the coveted Prix de Rome, but he failed to be selected. However, having chosen Academicism, Gérôme could show his work at the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, held annually or bi-annually since the 17th century (1667) in Paris, held annually or bi-annually since the 17th century (1667). In 1846, he painted The Cock Fight (1846) which earned him a medal at the Salon of 1847, but, perhaps more importantly, the painting was praised by writer and critic Théophile Gautier.

Gérôme travelled to Egypt in 1856, but did not do so on an official basis. He travelled as a tourist and artist. Gérôme was a history painter. Consequently, he did paint Napoléon, although Napoléon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798-1801) was a military failure. (See French campaign in Egypt and Syria, Wikipedia.)

Gérôme’s other subject matter was mythology, but in Egypt he became an Orientalist. In my last post, I featured the portrait of a black bashi-basouk. A bashi-basouk, also called delibaş, litterally a “crazy head,” was an irregular soldier in the Ottoman Army. Bashi-bazouk often chose to fight when they expected to rape and pillage. (See Bashi-basouk, Wikipedia.) As portrayed by Gérôme, bashi-basouk are colourful and seem harmless, but they committed atrocities, much as ISIL, Muslim radicals, does. One of their better-known massacres is the Batak massacre of 1876, in Bulgaria.


Bashi-bazouk chieftain by Gérôme, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Arnaut from Cairo by Gérôme, 1867 (Photo credit: wikiart.org)


Arnaut with Two Whippet Dogs, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867 (wikiart.org)

Literature and Music

Gérôme did paint bashi-bazouk, but his range of oriental subject matter is wider and 19th-century exoticism straddles disciplines. It also includes Victor Hugo‘s Les Djinns, a famous and dazzling poem about invisible Arabian creatures, published in Hugo’s 1829 collection entitled Les Orientales

Hugo’s Les Djinns inspired composers. One is Gabriel Fauré‘s Op.12, entitled Les Djinns. Les Djinns is also a Poème Symphonique for piano and orchestra, M 45, composed in 1884 by César Franck. Hugo’s poem is splendid and can be read online in French, English and German, at Les Djinns, Op 12.


We’ve devoted several posts to Japonisme and have now entered Orientalisme. Gérôme’s Orient is d’un goût étranger, as in Marin Maraisviol pieces. (See Suitte d’un goût étranger, Wikipedia). Exoticism may depict an inner truth in an oblique way, which is one of the characteristics of works of art. Fiction is oblique.
Love to everyone.


César Franck‘s Les Djinns
Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra (conductor Roberto Benzi)
François-Joël Thiollier (piano)
Recorded in 1995


Arnaut fumant (smoking), 1865 (Christie’s Images)

© Micheline Walker
15 August 2016