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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Gerome and Goupil

Jean Leon Gerome Self-portrait, 1886
One of the most popular and successful artists in recent times was Thomas Kinkade. Most of the art world didn't think much of him, their feelings for him ranging from an intense disinterest or secret envy to outright hatred. In that sense, and in some other ways too, he was the modern day equivalent of Norman Rockwell, and certainly appealed to that crowd as well as their baby boomer offspring. Some might consider Rockwell and Kinkade to be peculiarly 20th century phenomena. Actually there's a very close 19th century equivalent as well. Except that instead of freckle-faced, button-nosed kids or charming little cottages ablaze with lights in every window, this artist preferred dramatic, biblical scenes, Roman gladiatorial bouts, and mildly erotic historical subjects. But he and his publisher were no less successful than Rockwell or  Kinkade in bringing his art, in reproduction, to every economic level of society in nations all over the world.

Adolph Goupil
The artist was Jean Léon Gérôme. But just as important was his dealer, publicist, and publisher, Adolphe Goupil. Gérôme was an unabashed academicist, and given his popularity in France and elsewhere, he was probably responsible as much as anyone else for giving this style of painting a bad name in Paris art circles. He (and Goupil) found something that worked and exploited it to no end. The similarities to Kinkade especially are almost endless. Gérôme came to prominence in the early 1860s. He was of the same generation as Manet though the two were hardly on speaking terms. Critic Emil Zola, who loved Manet's work, considered Gérôme something of a hack, "obviously work(ing) for the house of Goupil."

Pollice Verso, 1872, Jean Leon Gerome
The house of Goupil was a well-established Paris art gallery and publishing company before Gérôme ever painted his first gladiator. It's uncertain whether Goupil started publishing Gérôme's work before or after the artist married his daughter, but in any case it was a lucrative business relationship for both that stretched to some 58 years. Goupil would buy Gérôme's works, such as his popular Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down, above) and Duel After the Ball (below) outright, including all reproduction rights. The key to his success with them was variety. Goupil printed Gérôme's images in reproductions as small as playing cards and as large as the paintings themselves. Sometimes he even employed Gérôme to paint copies of his work. Some works were hand-colored lithographs and intricate etchings, while others were merely postcard photographs selling for as little as one franc. Prices were further broadened in range depending upon the quality of paper used.

Duel After a Masquerade Ball, 1857, Jean Leon Gerome
But more than a printer, Adolphe Goupil was a marketing genius too. In part because of the popularity of Gérôme's work, Goupil was able to open up galleries in Alexandria, Egypt; Athens, Greece; Johannesburg, South Africa; Geneva, London, Melbourne, and New York City. But possibly his greatest success in marketing Gérôme came in the United States. There was just enough of an exotic flavor to Gérôme's work to make it popular while keeping within established Victorian tastes and moral bounds. And the traditional realism and subject matter of his work struck a chord with the same conservative core of the art buyers who came to love Rockwell in the first half of the next century, and Kinkade today. It's a segment of the market not tied to a single artist nor subject matter, but to a type of art--nostalgic, simple, basic, narrative, and easily interpreted. And, it has always been a segment that responds as much to mass marketing as to mass appeal.
The Slave Auction, 1866, Jean Leon Gerome--erotica, thinly disguised as Roman history.


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