Jean-Leon Gerome was the spawn of a jeweler and a goldsmith. He was born in the town of Vesoul, a French Provincial in 1824. He proved to be a studious and intelligent child from an early age and studied history, Greek, and Latin during his high school years. He learned how to draw from a Neoclassical painter known as Claude Basil Cariage who had been taught by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres.
The young Jean-Leon Gerome demonstrated his art abilities, which led to his teacher instructing him to study from plaster models and casts. The study materials had been imported from Paris to Vesoul. Gerome would then go ahead to win his first art-based prize in the year 1938. His drawing was able to catch the attention of a friend of Paul Delaroche, the French historical painter.
At the time he was turning 16 years, he had already managed to acquire his baccalaureate. It's at this time that he made the decision to head to Paris and extend his studies in Delaroche’s studio. By leaving his hometown, Gerome had acted against his parent's wishes. As he struggled to survive, he began painting religious cars that were then sold on church steps in a bid to help him earn a decent living.
Gerome went on to follow a very strict routine for 3 years: he would use casts to study during morning hours, and then proceed to sketch or paint en plain air during afternoon hours. Gerome was also encouraged to reproduce Old Masters and engravings in the Louvre. This also included attending lessons at the then prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
His continued devotion and capability eventually helped him to earn the approval of his parents, and more so his father. The rapid progress made by his son led him to award Gerome a generous yearly allowance of 1200 Francs, which his son was more than happy to share with the friends he had already made. 1843 saw Delaroche and Gerome traveling to Italy, where they made stops at Naples, Venice, and Rome.
In his diaries, the young artist noted that "This year is one of the happiest and fullest in my life, and at this time I have made many major signs of progress". Thanks to his mentors' existing connections, he was able to meet and interact with other upcoming photographers and artists such as Gustave Le Gray, Charles Negre, and Henri Le Secq. The confrères he made during that trip helped to influence much of the work he did later on in life.
Jean-Leon Gerome went on his first trip to the Middle East and Egypt in 1856. During this trip, he got to explore the Holy Land and made visits to Damascus and Jerusalem. This was in addition to crossing the Sinai Peninsula, visiting Cairo, and traveling along the River Nile. It was a trip that helped him create his earliest Orientalist Works. The works were mainly inspired by the landscape in North Africa.
In 1859, he was able to capture the American public’s imagination by having two paintings showcased in the city of New York. Mary G Morton, an art historian would later explain that, "Throughout the initial half of the 19th Century, Americans fixated on inherent, and morally instructive art. Nevertheless, the disaster and forfeiture of national self-assurance all through the Civil War era led to an insistent turning outward".
It was an explanation that helped to draw the attention of both collectors and critics back to the Old World times. For some time after this, his Orientalism work was used as a representation of American high art. But as it would later turn out, the success he enjoyed also turned out to be one of his main downfalls.
As his artistic work continued to become popular, he started to become more disparaged as a progressive artist. While many Americans loved him for his professionalism, refined technical training, and intellectualism, there are those that despised him for being too commercial. But while some continued to hold him in contempt, his pieces still continued to attract very good prices.
In some cases, the pieces he had done would sell for between 10 and 100 times as that of his copycat colleagues. He got married to Marie Goupil in 1863. Marie was the daughter of Aldophe Goupil, a successful international art dealer. Gerome had been working with Adolphe for a period of 4 years. He described Marie, who was at the time 21-years old as "A fresh lady of rare splendor and charming elegance." After their marriage, they settled at a townhouse located at 6 rue de Bruxelles. Jeanne, their first child was born in the same year. They would later go on to add three children, a son, and two daughters.
In 1898, Jean-Leon Gerome, got the rare distinction to be nominated as a Grand Officer holding the Légion d'honneur rank. Those who knew him often described Gerome as a man that was highly fascinated by appearances—his own as well as that of others. It's something that could clearly be seen in the way he dressed, his love for photography, and the way he styled his bushy mane. According to The Art Journal, Gerome was a man with a very atypical look. It would then go on to add that his grey mustache, grey hair, and large deep-set eyes helped make him picturesque. The deep concern he had for the way he appeared is what made him refuse to let himself go. He also possessed a strong determination to maintain control, which is something that can clearly be seen in the loyalty he had to artistic, meticulous, and scrupulous crafts.
The concern he had for his appearance is believed to have been what led to his demise in 1904. Gerome died without a fuss and in a neat fashion at the age of 80 in his studio when seated in front of a Rembrandt portrait. According to Albert Soubies, a French writer, he died full of energy and in full stride. Unlike what people were used to at the time, his death was sudden was not preceded by a decline in his physical well-being. Albert went on to note that a week prior to his death, Gerome had been seen walking around upright, albeit slim, but full of energy, as a plain clad civilian officer would do.
The Legion of Honor rank he held meant that he was entitled to receive a military sendoff. However, he had made it a point to leave behind instructions indicating that he did not want any fuss, but would rather prefer a simple ceremony. He was laid down to rest in front of his own sculpture positioned at the Montmartre Cemetery. Before his sudden death, historians believe that he had produced hundreds of studies and drawings, seventy sculptures, and around seven hundred paintings in the course of his lifetime.
The career of Jean-Leon Gerome and that of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a French artist ran parallel to each other. The latter mainly produced genre, religious, and Neoclassical nudes that proved to be a big hit with the populace. And as was the case with Gerome, William-Adolphe Bouguereau also managed to divide the public's opinion mainly due to the contempt that he had for copycats.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau and 2 additional contemporaries, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonie and Alexandre Cabanel, including Gerome, they all fell into much disrepute after their demises. This is in spite of his work being showcased by renowned museums such as Musée d'Orsay and Louvre Museum, both in Paris, France. Others include the National Gallery in London and The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art based in the city of New York. His relevance to modern art continues to be questioned, more so for the stand that he had on modern art. Some have even gone as far as calling him the "anti-Monet".