This Week’s Art: Gérôme’s “Bashi Bazouk”


When I talk about art, and believe me that’s pretty much every day of my life, I often touch on the things that I really love about particular pieces. Sometimes it’s composition, or texture, even just a color within the piece. Sometimes I get very technical with it, often it probably comes across more like, “I dun like it lots.”

But sometimes there are those few pieces where there is something more, something that exceeds what is normally given. Take Bashi Bazouk for example. Portraits are a dime a dozen, and much like landscape watercolors here in the western U.S. they can often be serviceable, but tiresome. The art is often done well, but whether it leans towards realism or something abstract, it might not bring anything to the table. Who cares, it’s just another person that probably means something to someone somewhere, it just isn’t me.

Bashi-Bazouk, Jean-Léon Gérôme

“Bashi-Bazouk”, Jean-Léon Gérôme

Sometimes, though, you’re lucky enough to come across something extraordinary. Sure, art is subjective, and often a piece that speaks to one person doesn’t speak to another. I’ll put Michael Whelan’s Firestarter cover up against most things, it’s gorgeous. But it’s not a topic or a vision that everyone is ready for, it’s just a piece that speaks to my particular brand of crazy. What Gérôme captured was something even more than that.

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Gérôme captured the essence of what art really is.

He took what could have been a standard orientalist portrait and gave it a life of its own. This is not a simple model painted in his studio, a man just posing as something he is not. Gérôme has left the reality of the painting and given us the essence of this man, this portrayal of a culture.

In bringing this portrait to life, Gérôme makes it so much more than it should be. You feel like you could reach out and caress the fine, shiny silk of the man’s clothes. You sense the heaviness of the gun, both figuratively and literally. The worn textures and shadows of his headwear make it feel like the fabric is inseparable from either the man or the culture.

The man himself is painted beautifully, with a realism that touches the heart. It is not simply of matter of accurate skin tones, or the right emotion, or even his pose. Gérôme has captured the essence of a character through every brushstroke. It is not a matter of realistic painting, or the right shadows, or even the perceived softness of the man’s hair. Gérôme succeeds in the old adage of, “it is art to conceal art,” and in this piece we do not look for brushstrokes, techniques, or the right composition. What Gérôme has given us is a man to be admired, a character to be moved by, and a piece to remember.

He has given us the essence of art, the creation of meaning and emotion from no more than some paint, a canvas, and a brilliance of vision.

See it much larger on the MET website here.


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