Jean-Léon Gérôme was born at
Haute-Saône. He went to Paris in 1840 where he studied under
Paul Delaroche, whom he accompanied to Italy (1843–44). He visited
Florence, Rome, the
Pompeii, but he was more attracted to the world of nature. Taken by a fever, he was forced to return to Paris in 1844. On his return, he followed, like many other students of Delaroche, into the
Charles Gleyre and studied there for a brief time. He then attended the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1846 he tried to enter the prestigious
Prix de Rome, but failed in the final stage because his figure drawing was inadequate.
The Cock Fight (1846), is an academic exercise, depicting a nude young man and a lightly draped young woman with two
fighting cocks, the Bay of
Naples in the background. He sent this painting to the
Salon of 1847, where it gained him a third-class medal. This work was seen as the epitome of the
Neo-Grec movement that had formed out of Gleyre's studio (such as
Henri-Pierre Picou (1824–1895) and
Jean-Louis Hamon), and was championed by the influential French critic
Gérôme abandoned his dream of winning the Prix de Rome and took advantage of his sudden success. His paintings The Virgin, the Infant Jesus and St John (private collection) and Anacreon, Bacchus and Cupid (Musée des Augustins,
Toulouse, France) took a second-class medal in 1848. In 1849, he produced the paintings Michelangelo (also called In his studio) (now in private collection) and A portrait of a Lady (
In 1851, he decorated a vase, later offered by Emperor
Napoleon III of France to
Prince Albert, now part of the Royal Collection at
St. James's Palace, London. He exhibited Bacchus and Love, Drunk, a Greek Interior and Souvenir d'Italie, in 1851; Paestum (1852); and An Idyll (1853).
The Tulip Folly
(1882) represents "
" in the Netherlands. Soldiers were ordered to trample the flowerbeds in an effort to stabilize the market.
The Walters Art Museum.
In 1852, Gérôme received a commission by Alfred Emilien Comte de Nieuwerkerke, Surintendant des Beaux-Arts to the court of Napoleon III, for the painting of a large historical canvas, the Age of Augustus. In this canvas he combines the birth of Christ with conquered nations paying homage to Augustus. Thanks to a considerable down payment, he was able to travel in 1853 to Constantinople, together with the actor
Edmond Got. This would be the first of several travels to the East: in 1854 he made another journey to Greece and
 and the shores of the
Danube, where he was present at a concert of Russian conscripts, making music under the threat of a lash.
In 1853, Gérôme moved to the Boîte à Thé, a group of studios in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris. This would become a meeting place for other artists, writers and actors.
George Sand entertained in the small theatre of the studio the great artists of her time such as the composers
Johannes Brahms and
Gioachino Rossini and the novelists
Théophile Gautier and
In 1854, he completed another important commission of decorating the Chapel of St. Jerome in the
church of St. Séverin in Paris. His Last communion of St. Jerome in this chapel reflects the influence of the school of Ingres on his religious works.
exhibition of 1855 he contributed a Pifferaro, a Shepherd, A Russian Concert, and The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ. The last was somewhat confused in effect, but in recognition of its consummate rendering the State purchased it. However the modest painting, A Russian Concert (also called Recreation in the Camp) was more appreciated than his huge canvases.
In 1856, he visited
Egypt for the first time. Gérômes recurrent itinerary followed the classic grand tour of most occidental visitors to the Orient; up the nile to Cairo, across to Fayoum, then further up the Nile to Abu Simbel, then back to Cairo, across the Sinai Peninsula through Sinai and up the Wadi el-Araba to the Holy land, Jerusalem and finally Damascus.
This would herald the start of many orientalist paintings depicting Arab religion, genre scenes and North African landscapes. In an autobiographical essay of 1878, Gérôme described how important oil sketches made on the spot were for him: "even when worn out after long marched under the bright sun, as soon as our camping spot was reached I got down to work with concentration. But Oh! How many things were left behind of which I carried only the memory away! And I prefer three touches of colour on a piece of canvas to the most vivid memory, but one had to continue on with some regret.
He did not only gather themes, artefacts and costumes for his oriental scenes, but also made oil studies from nature for their backgrounds. Several of these quick sketches are filled with details that exceed his wished for three touches of colour.
Gérôme's reputation was greatly enhanced at the Salon of 1857 by a collection of works of a more popular kind: the Duel: after the Masked Ball (
Chantilly), Egyptian Recruits crossing the Desert, Memnon and Sesostris and Camels Watering, the drawing of which was criticized by
In 1858, he helped to decorate the Paris house of Prince
Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte in the Pompeian style. The prince had bought his Greek Interior (1850), a depiction of a brothel also in the Pompeian manner.
In Caesar (1859) Gérôme tried to return to a more severe class of work, the painting of Classical subjects, but the picture failed to interest the public.
Phryne before the Areopagus, King Candaules and Socrates finding Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia (1861) gave rise to some scandal by reason of the subjects selected by the painter, and brought down on him the bitter attacks of
Paul de Saint-Victor and
Maxime Du Camp. At the same Salon he exhibited the Egyptian Chopping Straw, and
Rembrandt Biting an Etching, two very minutely finished works.
He married Marie Goupil (1842–1912), the daughter of the international art dealer
Adolphe Goupil. They had four daughters and one son. Upon his marriage he moved to a house in the Rue de Bruxelles, close to the music hall
Folies Bergère. He expanded it into a grand house with stables with a sculpture studio below and a painting studio on the top floor.
He started an independent
atelier at his house in the Rue de Bruxelles between 1860 and 1862.
Gérôme was elected, on his fifth attempt, a member of the
Institut de France in 1865. Already a knight in the
Légion d'honneur, he was promoted to an officer in 1867. In 1869, he was elected an honorary member of the British
Royal Academy. The King of Prussia
Wilhelm I awarded him the Grand
Order of the Red Eagle, Third Class. His fame had become such that he was invited, along with the most eminent French artists, to the opening of the
Suez Canal in 1869.
He was appointed as one of the three professors at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He started with sixteen students, most who had come over from his own studio. His influence became extensive and he was a regular guest of Empress
Eugénie at the Imperial Court in
The theme of his
Death of Caesar (1867) was repeated in his historical canvas
The Execution of Marshal Ney, that was exhibited at the Salon of 1868, despite official pressure to withdraw it as it raised painful memories.
Gérôme returned successfully to the Salon in 1873 with his painting L'
Eminence Grise (
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a colorful depiction of the main stair hall of the palace of
Cardinal Richelieu, popularly known as the Red Cardinal (L'Eminence Rouge), who was
de facto ruler under King
Louis XIII beginning in 1624. In the painting, François Le Clerc du Trembly, a
Capuchin friar dubbed L'
Eminence Grise (the Gray Cardinal), descends the ceremonial staircase immersed in the
Bible while subjects either bow before him or fix their gaze on him. As Richelieu's chief adviser, L'
Eminence Grise was called "the power behind the throne," which became the known definition of his title.
When he started to protest and show a public hostility to "decadent fashion" of
Impressionism, his influence started to wane and he became unfashionable. But after the exhibition of
Manet in the Ecole in 1884, he eventually admitted that "it was not so bad as I thought."
In 1896 Gérôme painted
Truth Coming Out of Her Well, an attempt to describe the transparency of an illusion. He therefore welcomed the rise of photography as an alternative to his photographic painting. In 1902, he said "Thanks to photography, Truth has at last left her well."
Jean-Léon Gérôme died in his
atelier on 10 January 1904. He was found in front of a portrait of
Rembrandt and close to his own painting Truth Coming Out of Her Well. At his own request, he was given a simple burial service without flowers. But the
Requiem Mass given in his memory was attended by a former president of the Republic, most prominent politicians, and many painters and writers. He was buried in the
Montmartre Cemetery in front of the statue Sorrow that he had cast for his son Jean who had died in 1891.
He was the father-in-law of the painter