A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Classical references, Orientalist imagery, and historical depictions abound in From Homer to the Harem: The Art of Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ. In this new exhibition at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City, a hundred works--paintings, sketches, and drawings--by the artist are presented in the first major display focusing on Lecomte du Nouÿ. Born in 1842, Lecomte du Nouÿ was a prominent figure in nineteenth-century academic art, but has been all but forgotten since his death in 1923.
Art termed "academic" is rooted in the instruction of the Academy, the traditional training ground for artists in the nineteenth century with its focus on the human form. Young artists studied the human figure by continuous drawing and sculpting and attempted to adhere to a rule-based artistic style of well-developed skill and formal composition. Nineteenth-century Impressionist painters largely overshadow contemporaneous academic painters today, and the Dahesh Museum seeks to further public interest in the academic tradition.
Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ kept strictly to this tradition. He believed that art should have an edifying quality and painted accordingly. The Dahesh exhibition displays representations from all of Lecomte du Nouÿ's main themes, including portraiture, travel, history, the neo-Greek tradition, religion, and the Orient.
The exhibition progresses to Lecomte du Nouÿ's travel paintings. A number of oil sketches hang that were done during his journeys through Egypt and Venice, one of his favorite cities. These sketches were purely for himself and not for public consumption, since landscapes alone played an inferior role in academic art. Of note is a depiction of a scene in Paris completed during a particularly cold winter, so cold that Lecomte du Nouÿ wrote the temperature, below zero, on the back of the work.
The major historical paintings on display include Supper at Beaucaire, 1869. Painted in 1894, the work suggests Rembrandt, from its gloomy appearance and mere candlelight glow, and shows a young Napoleon Bonaparte conversing over dinner. Dying for the Fatherland, finished in 1892, represents the historical reality-bending that Lecomte du Nouÿ: enjoyed: the placement of one time period upon another. A stark, awkwardly placed naked male soldier, referencing an ancient sculpted Greek figure, lies on a nineteenth-century French battleground. When first exhibited, the painting included soldiers with uniforms similar to those worn during the Franco-Prussian War. Art viewers at the time criticized the work for showing a dead soldier during what they thought was a specific moment and even a specific battle. Lecomte du Nouÿ responded that the dead figure was intended as a memorial for all who had ever died for the country of France, and he even painted out the soldiers to prove his point.
After Lecomte du Nouÿ's travels through the Middle East, he used biblical and religious subjects in his works. Because of the biblical archaeology at the time, combined with the notion that people in the Middle East were direct descendants of the people who lived when the Bible was written, Lecomte du Nouÿ and his contemporaries eagerly dove into such themes. In this exhibition viewers see that Lecomte du Nouÿ often integrated Orientalism into his religious works. Artistically, Orientalism can be loosely defined as the use of Near and Middle Eastern lands, people, customs, and lifestyle in art. Lecomte du Nouy depicted people of all religions, from Christians that he saw in the Middle East to the Jews that he observed in Morocco, as in Rabbis Commenting the Bible on the Saturday (Souvenir of Morocco), painted in 1882. Jews and Christians were often portrayed at the time because Muslims often objected to being painted. Detail in these religious paintings is faultlessly accurate, right down to correct Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions.
More Orientalist paintings are exhibited at the Dahesh. Of them many are Egyptian, such as The Gate of the Harem, Souvenir of Cairo (1876). In The White Slave (1888) Lecomte du Nouÿ captures the remnants of the white slave trade that was conducted in the Ottoman Empire. Since white slaves served as courtesans in the harem, he painted a seductive woman in pure luxury, from the food beside her to the leisurely way she enjoys a puff of smoke. Also of note in this painting are the many kinds of objects that are from different areas of the world. Clearly Lecomte du Nouÿ drew on his travel experiences and incorporated them into the painted décor of this work. The Dream of a Eunuch (1874) shows that Lecomte du Nouÿ also made use of other sources; for this work, Montesquieu's Persian Letters served as his muse. Montesquieu composed these letters in 1721 as a commentary on French culture and politics in the form of letters written by Persian travelers in Paris.
A major strength of this exhibit is the fact that the artist's lost works are by no means forgotten. The curator has found reproductions of what has been lost in order to inform viewers of Lecomte du Nouÿ's other famous works. His most acclaimed work, entitled The Bearer of Bad Tidings, was completed in 1872 and is now lost. While the small black-and-white photograph certainly does not do it justice, the representation allows us to imagine the grandeur of the work and get a sense of why it was so popular. The curator also does an excellent job of posting interesting and relevant information about the paintings, going so far as to put up miniature examples of other artists' work for comparison's sake in some cases. The exhibit is open to the public from now until September 19, 2004. With its focus on such a little-know, but doubtless extremely talented artist, From Homer to the Harem: The Art of Lecomte du Nouÿ: will certainly make for an enjoyable afternoon at the Dahesh.
Diana Michelle Fox, a classics major at the University of Chicago, is an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY.