Sale of the heirs of Mademoiselle Thénard, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, November 19, 1931, no. 31;
Private Collection, France.
Gerald Ackerman, La vie et l’oeuvre de Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paris, 1986, and English ed. London and New York, 1986, p. 194, no. 49.
Idem, Jean-Léon Gérôme: monographie révisée, catalogue raisonné mis à jour, Paris, 2000, no. 49.
Gérôme, whose father was a goldsmith from Vesoul, went to Paris at age sixteen and studied with Paul Delaroche, a master of highly finished, detailed anecdotal and historical compositions. Together they visited Italy in 1843. Following his first showing at the Salon in 1847, Gérôme soon became one of the leading French Academic painters of the late 19th century, producing various genre subjects set in both modern and ancient times, and then following his many trips, commencing in 1856, exotic Egyptian scenes. He found favor among the wealthy American collectors of the period, and it was noted already in 1877: "There are but few French artists of modern times whose works are more known, studied, and appreciated in America than are those of Jean-Léon Gérôme." Thus the painter, who also later in his career turned to sculptureas well, was able to command very high prices, and in spreading his fame, he was greatly aided by the leading Parisian dealer and publisher, Adolphe Goupil, whose daughter, Marie, he married in 1863.
Gérôme, unlike his contemporary William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted very few religious subjects and also very few reductions of his popular works, so the present painting, is actuallyrather unusual in his oeuvre. It is in fact a reduction of a larger version (42 1/2 by 29 1/2 inches)painted in 1848 (fig. 1), which was shown to great acclaim at the Salon that year. It was correctly noted that the composition owed much to works by Raphael, such as that master's La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre (fig. 2a) and the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi (fig. 2b). The review by the influential critic Théophile Gautier, tellingly observed in light of what had been the young painter's previous Néo-Grec style: "Gérôme although a paganof Pompeii, also fully understands Christian art. His St. John Embracing the Child Jesus on the knees of the Virgin might have been signed by Overbeck, only Overbeck would not have displayed this profound science of drawing and exquisite taste hidden under the Gothic pasticcio. Gérôme goes toward Calvary by way of Athens!" This was a reference to the German Nazarene painter Johann Freiedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) who resided from 1810 in Rome and was known for his refined, Raphaelinspired Renaissance-style compositions (fig. 3). It should be pointed out, however, that it was something of a tradition for young French artists to show their mettle by painting a Raphaelesque Madonna, and both Delacroix and Ingres had previously done so (figs. 4a-b).
There are some slight differences between the large version and this reduced replica. These are in the pattern of the leaves on the background trees, and most notably in the absence of the lamb behind the cross in the left middle edge. Like Raphael in the Belle Jardinière , Gérôme employs the arched top for the composition, but unlike the earlier master, he gives his three holy personages haloes. As evident already in his very thorough preparatory drawing (fig. 5), Gérôme does evoke the same classical triangular composition, but his original touches are the slight tilt ofthe Virgin's heard, her fluttering scarf, and slightly coy single foot exposed in the foreground. In this subtle painting Gérôme already displays his life-long delicacy of touch and exquisite sense of color. The most unusual element is perhaps the fairly passionate kiss of the blonde Jesus and darkhaired St. John. They are almost identical with the painter's contemporary depiction of the drunken children Bacchus and Cupid (fig. 6).
The painting still is enshrined in it's wonderfully ornate original period frame.