Painting of the Day

27 Jan

The Snake Charmer. by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904). Oil on canvas, c. 1870. Belongs to the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. 

Notes from

The Snake Charmer focuses on a naked boy handling a python while an old man plays a fipple flute. Watching intently is a group of mercenaries differentiated by the distinctive costumes of their tribes, by ornaments, and by weapons. Such erotic and exotic imagery of Near Eastern subjects was very popular in the late nineteenth century. Despite the nearly photographic realism employed by Gérome, the painting is a pastiche of Egyptian, Turkish, and Indian elements that have no basis in reality.

My comments:

This painting was used in an article from Art in America that I had to read for my Modern Art class, and it discussed the Orientalist work in terms of how France and other European countries used artists like Gerome to paint the Near East in a certain way for their citizens in the West and to use this contrived image to justify their imperialism and colonization of Africa and the Middle East, and even, in some cases, to give it a moral cause. The author of this article, Linda Nochlin, is responding to a recent exhibition (recent at the time of the article, which was written in 1983) about 19th century French Orientalist painting that refused to address the political motivations behind the painting. In her view, paintings such as The Snake Charmer simply cannot be analyzed and discussed honestly without addressing its overt creation of a fake facade of the Near East for French viewers. 

At first read, I was confused by the article because to me Orientalism referred to the fascination to Japanese painting that influenced many European artists in the 19th century (such as Degas and Van Gogh), a phenomenon known as Japonisme. But once I read the article again, all of Nochlin’s arguments made more sense, and I think she makes an important point about what we must consider when we interpret this painting. It’s not just the subject matter of the painting that leads viewers to have a certain image of the Near East in their head, although this is a major tool on the part of the artist. Even though the Near East was modernizing at a slower pace than France, it was still modernizing, but Gerome’s painting, which is typical of the Orientalist genre, makes the Near East appear as we probably would imagine it in Aladdin and Arabian Nights, where everyone is a nomad and has no concept of modern technology. One interesting formal element that distances us even further from the people in the painting, Nochlin interestingly pointed out, is that it places us as viewers not among the audience in the painting, but behind the snake charmer so we can also observe the audience. It’s almost like the snake charmer is just a pretense for the real show, which is the audience, an audience that most French citizens of the 19th century would know nothing about since they had never traveled to the Near East or received any honest information about that whole other world of different cultures. 

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara January 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    we could also be placed behind the boy so we can not see his frontal nudity, which during the time of the painting may have been problematic for the viewing public. A picture is worth 1000 words and Nochlin is indicating that the painting misrepresents the truth. sort of how Hollywood portrays Conservative vs Liberal positions for the cause of influenceing public sentiment. History repeats itself.
    On the other hand Nochlin could be saying this because she is predispossed to megative thought of the east. white man is always guilty of exploitation and miorities are alwaysnobel- American Indians ,Muslims, Blacks etc.

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