The Slave Market, 1871
One has hair long enough to cover her breasts, but she chooses exposure, pushing the hair behind her shoulders to dangle in the humidity. Its weight cranes her neck toward the tangerine sheet that cushions her feet. She is tanned, scrubbed, shaved. Her hips curve like lips calling out good times here, cheeks muddled with sweat that sparkles, brows punctuating Medusa’s stare, numbed to granite by the hungry bodies she’s untangled from. Some soft, calloused, rough, fast, gone, and back to the mat she goes, a gypsy whore who no longer bothers with lingerie or robes, refusing to leave to the imagination what customers can rent with coins.
Jean-Léon Gérôme is born in Vesoul, France, in May of 1824 and starts his painting apprenticeship sixteen years later. The Prix de Rome rejects him for inadequate figure drawings in ‘46, but by ‘80, Gérôme is the world’s unofficial painter laureate.
I see the skill in Gérôme’s strokes, but I also see the inadequacies: hips too round, Egyptians too pale, arms too bald. I’m nothing of a painter, yet I’m staring at his composition, sweating under exhibit-filtered light, trying to read the fire he’s folded into this woman’s jaw. He’s writing stories in the crease of her elbow, the weight of her mane, and whether for justice or jest, he’s created and damned a life with a brush. And it’s glorious. And it’s art.
And I’d like to think the same could be possible for some note or poem I churn out—a metrical mess, syntactically defunct, but with a worthwhile thread, a beam of truth flickering through fault lines. I’m a sucker for redemption.
Another buries her face behind two sheets, only her toes and an arm free from the linen. She picks at the tassels and shakes with the breeze, wondering if she can sink into the sandstone wall she leans against. Her hand reveals sores. Or bruises. She tightens her blankets, praying for invisibility, cloaked in denial. Customers like the mystery, and they unwrap her like a gift.
In art history, orientalism is an Eastern imitation through a Western lens—dusty reds, naked women, turbans and parrots, snakes and spices, the exotic. In postcolonial theory, it’s a term of aggression: a green light for conquerors, the word that gave India to Britain and Africa to France, films with Western heroes and Eastern villains, bitter herbs on Said’s tongue. Either way, Gérôme earns the descriptive tag.
He calls his oriental paintings an exercise of combination, a way to muddle Middle Eastern buildings with Paris’ ideal figures. But I taste something sinister in his turpentine, and I understand why the second woman is trying to hide.
I want to face Gérôme, but I can’t decide if I’d slander or hold him. He frames these women into zoos, makes their faces caves and displays seven Eastern villains, filth-bathed. But he also sees the sores on the second woman’s hand. Does he weep for her? Or does he tilt his head, squint his eyes, mash plum and mahogany on a palette for a fitting hue. I wonder if he could weep through brushstrokes,
or if I can grieve on the page, if I can mourn with edits, if a eulogy is just poetry, if I can hate the paintings chiseled from bleeding history, if precision becomes healing, if I often care for my commas above my subjects, if that makes me something more of a monster, something less of a human, something fuller of an artist.
The third appears sunburned, pink under the bedsheet that cinches her waist. Her right breast spills over the fabric, and her babe covers her left. She’s the cheapest of the six. She glares at her prospects with cataracted eyes, working to soften their outlines to ideas, symbols, pictures—whatever she can stomach opening herself to in the back room. Why not on the street corner? This pink woman used to make a burlesque of her work and jingle around the station, dancing and shaking to mock what customers would call pure, lovely, goddess, divine—titles lost postpartum. She moans to spite them.
In 1861, Gérôme paints Phryne Before the Areopagus, telling of a wealthy hetaira tried for impiety and exposed to rows of scarlet-draped senators. His first in The Slave Market series in 1866, navy robes at a bare woman’s feet while a customer probes her molars with his knuckles. In 1870, Moorish Bath—a shameful nakedness, breasts nestled between tight shoulders and a downward gaze. His Pool in a Harem in 1875, porcelain prostitutes, naked, twisting their swan necks to inspect a dark woman’s garment. A Roman Slave Market, 1884, naked from behind, creasing into her right hip. Slave Market in Rome, also 1884, naked from the front, applauded by a sea of groping palms. The Great Bath at Bursa, 1885, communal and naked and proud. Nude Girl, 1886, timid and bare, titled well. Bathsheba, 1889, naked on her rooftop, flaunting before the angels. The Bathers, 1889, bodies inspecting the nakedness of others. Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, 1896, naked (with bloodshot eyes), howling at the horrors that she sees that we do not.
The word that comes to mind is persona. From whose eyes does Gérôme paint? It’s the question with infinite doors, the answer that loses its footing with some objection of perspective—that the painter is showing a scene from a foreign vantage, borrowing a lens. I can’t know if he thinks these women are victims or dogs. If he’s wearing another point of view at the easel, will it taint his? Correct his? I struggle to determine if Gérôme is an advocate or a spectator or a heckler or a customer. The possibilities remind me that horrible people can make heavenly art.
But I consider myself tolerable, and I adopt personas. I write loose personas, questionable personas, almost-fictitious personas. I don’t know if Gérôme’s third woman was a popular product pre-babe, if she knows how to dance, if she mocks with moans. I guess. I lie. The details that I read in her cheekbones make her real to me. And by that confession—make her real—I’m no better than Gérôme. I’m making a person into a symbol, turning to hypothesis, exchanging the soul for the character, burying the third woman’s gaze in my interpretation of it.
And maybe nakedness is the interpretation of least involvement. Maybe Gérôme is exposing the story and letting it speak without barriers, and maybe my sidebars and commentaries are drafted in vain.
The fourth has dark skin, a palette of mahogany and maroon now grayed in the dust that men who hiss just looking kick up in an eternal cloud, denser than smoke, thicker than smog, and she hides behind it, behind her sheet, her braids, her fellow coworkers.
In an 1878 essay about his artwork of the East, Gérôme laments: “How many things were left behind of which I carried only the memory away! I continued on with some regret!”
He must have carried the ghosts of women, babes, parrots, patrons, their faces sloshing in his canteen. He must have imagined details later, choosing quarry cheeks and crow’s feet, determined to produce the scenes his itinerary forced him to leave. He must have built back memories that fled like the breeze. Maybe that’s contamination, but maybe it’s reclamation. He might have cloaked the fourth woman because he couldn’t remember her face but still tasted her shame.
My sympathies dry when I consider that Gérôme likely wanted to stay less as a humanitarian, more as a painter. I’m still deciding if sliding the right colors over a canvas counts as both.
And it makes me see the glory and the guts of nuance. It makes me realize how much pressure I heap on my art to expose, capture, teach, delight, express, evoke, demand, question, rage. Gérôme accomplishes all of those tasks, and still, he regrets how quickly he had to depart. It would do me well to sit and survey my muse, get alone with it, look at it from enough directions, find familiarity with a potent stare.
The fifth woman has seen death. Each morning, she leaves her body at her station with the others and sends her dreams to search for goodness near the fruit stalls, in the witches’ tents, with words she hears whispered by clean women, like sailboat and embassy. She sits still, knees together, mind slinking through the alleys, and her eyes are an empty theater, the masterpiece of her tombstone face draped with ocean blue silk, plum-sized earrings, a tiger-striped headscarf. Men are chilled by her beauty, and she is haunted by men.
Gérôme auctions his artwork. Adolphe Goupil, his father-in-law, buys the 1866 Slave Market on August 23. He hangs it in his salon.
I am caught on the idea that these immortal women will never cease to be sold, sold to oil-painted slave traders, sold to infected men, sold to new masters, sold to museums like Cincinnati’s, sold to Goupil who frames and hangs mewling maidens in his salon for decoration, discourse, the fresh talking point of next week’s dinner party.
So I return to Gérôme—advocate and auctioneer—unsure of where my sympathies ought to fall around him or any artist. How much of a painting can code for motivation? How do I look at portraits and landscapes in the midst of museums and determine quality? And of what—product, motivation, craftsmanship, concept, maker?
Picasso’s granddaughter said he drove everyone around him to despair. Monet had a nasty temper. Dali was a sadist. Townspeople called Cézanne a lunatic. Pollock died a volatile alcoholic.
And these men made great art. I know because I get lost in the ripples and dashes and faces they laid with palette knives, because I write chapters about their murals and stand in front of their frames until my heels hurt. But I want them to be great, to know that good flows from good.
The last woman pretends to sleep, or maybe she does. Her nights and days weave together because she passes both in bed. More than troubled, she is sloppy—dress wrinkled, hair unbrushed, toes crusted with dirt, too frequently engaged to check for hangnails or sleep. So she does now, on the corner, having learned to rest upright while patrons refasten their belts because others always come.
Gérôme writes a letter in the snow of 1903 to mourn the outpourings of a life at the easel:
“I begin to have enough of life. I’ve seen too much misery and misfortune in the lives of others. I still see it every day, and I’m getting eager to escape this theatre.”
He dies a month later, heart stilled at the foot of his lady Truth—a naked woman, wrapping within herself the rawness of a generation.
Perhaps Gérôme painted because he needed an audience, needed other eyes stained with his stories, needed their curdled gaze upon the nipples and hips and molars and bones of the women he saw pale and perish.
Maybe he couldn’t articulate the problem, so he didn’t aim for interpretation. Instead, he copied pure scenes—unadulterated moments with each thread of oppression and awe, a twisted knot for you and I to untangle.
And maybe good does not flow from good but art flows from Truth, with every shade of her nakedness, every howl from her chest and ridge in her spine, and Gérôme poured out his life and portion and paint getting out of the way to make room for her to speak,
and I should, too.
Heidie Raine is an Ohio-based writer who works primarily in the realm of creative nonfiction. She loves peaches and lip balm, and she recently thrifted an oil lamp that she feels quite proud of. Heidie’s works have previously appeared in Chapter House Journal, Marathon Literary Review, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and others.
A Song for Heidie