Saturday, February 25, 2012

Chess in Art Postscript: Seeking Eakins While Gérôme Burns

Last week we investigated the hidden meanings of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) much loved painting of 1876, The Chess Players, and ended with an obscure detail on the back wall.

That murky clue is enough to give us a swinging London moment such as David Hemmings enjoyed in Blow-Up in 1966.

"What the f*** is going on?"

Take a closer look.

Hmm. A grainy image, though not from Blow-Up's unsettlingly cool and breezy day in a leafy park in South London, where a murder may have been conspiratorially committed; but an unsettlingly sun-scorched, blood-boiling, killing field in Imperial Rome where mayhem most publicly, and definitely, has been. Incendiary stuff.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Ave Caesar, Morituri te Salutant (1859)
Yale University Art Gallery

Not convinced? Well, just as in Blow-Up we can peg them on the wall for closer inspection:

This correspondence was reported by Kathleen Foster (1997), and mentioned by Mary Morton (2010), and it leads us into the relationship between the Thomas Eakins and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and their paintings, which began with Eakins' two-year study with the French artist in Paris from late 1866 into 1868. So as to acknowledge his debt to the Parisian maître, Thomas put a reference to J-L G's "Hail Caesar" into The Chess Players of 1876.

But there is more, much more, to it than that.

Gerôme is remembered these days (if at all) for his obsessive interest in the Orient, and in particular for his penchant for the voyeuristic portrayal of déshabillé (and less) slave girls, the harem and the like. This side of the Channel, artists like J.F.Lewis and Richard Dadd offered a more English, buttoned-up, version of the same - frills sans flesh. When J-L G found time, in his detumesced moments, he put his fevered imagination aside and rendered, in authentic detail, ordinary everyday scenes of the Middle East and North Africa. And what interests us in this post is that he painted local people playing board games.

A handy example is displayed in our own backyard in London, in the wonderful Wallace Collection. You'll find it, of all places, next to the blunderbusses and scimitars in the armoury gallery, not because of the belligerence of their game, but because of their matériel.

[Image courtesy of the Wallace Collection]

Gérome painted it in 1859 and he depicts a trio of "Arnauts" immersed in a favoured pastime. Arnauts were mercenaries from Albania, here found in Egypt during J-L G's visit in 1856. According to one source these charmers were renowned for their lawlessness, haughtiness and cruelty, plus they considered everyone else to be subhuman.

Double take on the Arnauts: three seasoned campaigners intent on the game, one standing slightly off-centre; one player straight-backed, the other slouched; the three of them forming a pyramid over the board, itself laid out at near eye-level with the viewer on a piece of workaday furniture. Looks familiar?
So Eakins' hommage to his tutor was more thoroughgoing than merely including an indistinct Ave Caesar on the back wall: Gérôme's Arnauts informs the essential structure of The Chess Players of 1876. And of course several commentators have also referred to this, including Gerald Ackerman (1969), a Gérôme connoisseur, who points out that Eakins owned a photo of the Arnauts (actually of a similar version - yes, J-L G recycled his own work, something we'll come back to). So, The Chess Players is an hommage with a capital aitch.

Martin A. Berger (2000), whose "discourse analysis" we explored last week, also noted the formal similarity of the two paintings; but he invokes Gérôme's work as evidence that chess in art was a conventional code for violence, which was, in Mr B's analysis, the essence of the Oedipal undercurrent in the relationship between Thomas Eakins and his father, Benjamin.

Mr Berger also makes a point about an apparently insignificant detail: Eakins painted his chess picture on a wooden panel, rather than his usual canvas. This, he says, leads us to see the characters in Eakins' picture as if they were themselves chessmen on the "board of life". This overarching metaphor of "chess is life" is the stage represented by The Chess Players.

Upon this stage the (supposed) real life battle between father Ben and son Thomas is symbolically played out. And that, by the way, isn't represented by the chess game between Holmes and Gardel, which you can see; it's the chess game you can't; the one you will have to imagine as being played by Benjamin Eakins, who is in the picture, and Thomas Eakins, who isn't. And I don't know about you, but I'm now having a David Hemmings moment.

When it comes to a wooden board, Gérôme himself had also painted his Arnauts on one, and of almost exactly the same A3 dimensions later used by Eakins, to boot. So a more parsimonious explanation (to my way of thinking, anyway) of Thomas's selection of that kind of "support" (the term artists use for whatever it is they slap their paint on) for his hommage, was simply that he wished to submit himself to the same technical discipline as his mentor.

So, no! IMHO it wasn't the ambivalent relationship Thomas had with his father that somehow lead him to choose, unconsciously or otherwise, something as incidental, and specific, as a wooden panel on which to paint The Chess Players. The deciding factor was the rational challenge he set himself in his artistic practice.

And if you want one more bit of evidence to support my rather mean-spirited and retro-empirical outlook (yes, sooo last century's paradigm) just look at Eakins' initial sketch (below, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art) for the head of Gardel: he was clearly thinking of Gérôme's Arnaut for that hand-on-chin, wasn't he?
So, my line of conjecture runs as follows: Eakins tries out the Arnaud gesture on Gardel but discards it, because for a painting of a real "live" game of chess where he wants to indicate clearly that one side is losing, he needs a gesture more defining of defeat than doubt, of resignation than rumination. Accordingly, for his final version, he lowers Gardel's hand to steady his palpitating heart.

All in all, it is the flesh and blood Gérôme who is key to understanding the Eakins picture, not the mythical Oedipus.

Anyway, maybe it's time now to put an end to our wrestling with Mr Berger, entertaining as his book has been, though I'm really not sure if I've got the hang of this "discourse analysis" business. Let's turn to another mystery, this time concerning Gérôme alone. This post has avoided using the full title of his 1859 painting showing the armed-to-the-back-teeth assassins engaged in their recreation. They are Arnauts, of course, of that there is no doubt. But what are they playing? Is it chess? Or is it something else?

Not quite another David Hemmings moment, admittedly, but plenty to discuss: too much for one post in fact, so please come back for more next week - Gérôme wasn't built in a day.

Acknowledgements etc
Gerald Ackerman. Thomas Eakins and his Parisian Masters, Gérôme and Bonnat. Gazette des Beaux-Arts. (April 1969)
Martin A. Berger. Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood. University of California Press (2000).
Kathleen Foster. Thomas Eakins Rediscovered. Yale U.P (1977)
Mary Morton. Gérôme en Amérique, Exhibition catalogue. Skira & Flammarion, Paris (2010)

Thanks to Peter Mason for putting me on to the Ave Caesar connection.

Chess in Art Index
Seriously Seeking Eakins

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