John Leo Gérôme was born at Vesoul, in 1824. He was a pupil in the school of Paul Delaroche, and was admitted to the school of the Fine Arts when he was in his nineteenth year. In 1847 when Gérôme was in his twenty-fourth year he exhibited his first picture which drew public attention—that of a young Greek man and woman setting cocks to fight. The subject was thus, early in his history, characteristic of Gérôme, who has shown a decided preference for incidents either in themselves painful or morally repulsive. The merits of the picture were also characteristic of Gérôme, being excellent of style and close imitation of the substances which were represented. After visiting Turkey and Egypt, and showing the influence of eastern travel on his art, Gérôme exhibited at the French Exhibition of 1855, when he was thirty-one years of age, the picture which gave him his place among the leading painters of France. It was a picture of great size, and was named The Age of Augustus, and the Birth of Jesus Christ, the intention of the painter being to figure the decline of paganism and the rise of Christianity. The work is said to have displayed grandeur in design and care in execution. It was bought by the French government, and procured for Gérôme the Cross of the Legion of Honour. He has painted pictures still more famous, notably his Duel after a Masked Ball, the original of which is now in the Gallery of Mr. W. T. Walters of Baltimore, his Gladiators, and his Slave Market in the Louvre. Gérôme is represented as pleasant in manners while indomitable in will. As an artist his fine skill as a draughtsman is considered superior to his art as a colourist. He is believed to have great dramatic power, which he can hold under complete control; indeed, one of the fascinations of his pictures is said to be the absolute coolness with which he treats his impassioned or terrible subject. The instances adduced by Mr Hamerton are the merchants examining the teeth of the slave-girl; and the sentinel smoking his pipe beside the severed heads of the boys at the door of the Cairo Mosque. We illustrate his celebrated painting from the Salon of 1875, A begging Monk at the door of a Mosque.
The following example of M Gerome's work is not open to the charge of repulsiveness :
Street Scene in Cairo.—Here we have architecture in sunlight and shadow, booths or shops, a long vista of broken pavement; half a score of dogs dozing; deep shadows in the recesses. The chief human figures are two superbly-armed and mounted Arabs; sitting in conference with a merchant who hands to one of them a bottle of cool water; a third Arab leans idly against a bulk; a tall woman, clad in dark blue, and veiled from head to food in black, bears at her hip a basket filled with oranges, like globes of gold; astride on her shoulder, his flesh making delicious colour with her blue robe, sits a lively and entirely naked boy; she grasps his ankle and makes nothing of her double load. This is a charming group, exhibiting some of the noblest qualities of M Gérôme's art. Before the mother trots an elder boy, who is naked but for a green veil streaming from his head; he bears a fresh branch of palm. Clad in light-blue, and walking behind the last, goes a tall negress, bearing a great water jar on her head. Beyond these, two women ,muffled in white from head to foot, are bargaining with the owner of a booth; men are chaffering just on the verge of the gloom which obscures more than half the interior of a nearer shop; a boy-donkey driver and his beast have brought to the door of a private house a lady, who, having knocked, is reconnoitred from an upper window by a servant. There is abundance of incident in this work; but one feels that it lacks movement, and that the design would be better if it had a dominant element. However this may be, it is a precious example of delicate and elaborate workmanship; its careful drawing will be enjoyed by all lovers of form, who will also like its sound and profoundly-studied modelling, and the faithfulness which is everywhere observable in the rendering of textures and light and shade; it has less of a certain metallic defect than is usual in this master's paintings.
Gérôme is regarded as unsurpassed in the present day in his drawing of dogs, and perhaps in his studies of animals generally. He exhibited no less than ten of his finest pictures at the Paris Exhibition of 1878.
(excerpt taken from The Table Book of Art by P. T. Sandhurst, 1880, pages 212ff.