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0014 Agata Wójcik, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Stanisław Chlebowski (English Version)

RIHA Journal 0014 | 27 December 2010

Jean-Léon Gérôme and Stanisław Chlebowski: The Story of a Friendship

Agata Wójcik

Peer review and editing organized by:

Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury / International Cultural Centre, Krakow


Barbara Ciciora, Monika Rydiger

Wersja polska dostępna pod / Polish version available at: (RIHA Journal 0013)


The aim of the article is to present the story of the relationship between Jean-Léon Gérôme and Stanisław Chlebowski. The reconstruction of their friendship is partly based on yet unpublished source materials on the life and work of Chlebowski. The artists met in the early 1860s. Their acquaintance became closer in 1875 when Gérôme stayed in Istanbul at Chlebowski's house. When Chlebowski moved to France, Gérôme introduced him to the French artistic circles, offered him advice and suggested themes for his work. Their relationship was interrupted by Chlebowski's disease and his return to Poland. The last note of this friendship was the short story by Léontine de Nittis, published in 1892.

– – – – –

  1. Jean Lecomte du Noüy, Odilon Redon, Thomas Eakins, Hamdi Bey, Mary Cassatt – the list of painters who studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme is very long. For almost forty years more than two thousand students from Europe and America came through Gérôme's atelier and many of them became quite successful. For some of them working with Gérôme, a great individuality, was a somewhat painful experience. For others his oeuvre became a model or even an ideal to be strived at. These students often began to slavishly copy his style.1 Stanisław Chlebowski, though only shortly a student of Gérôme, was the artist's friend for many years and considered him as his artistic role-model.

  2. In 1859 Stanisław Chlebowski, then a student of the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, was awarded a gold medal by this school and received a six-year scholarship for studying abroad.2 The young painter went on a journey across Europe; his destination was Paris, where he decided to continue his education.3 Chlebowski was probably taught by Gérôme in his private atelier which began to function after 1860 and certainly existed in the middle of 1862.4 When living in Turkey from 1864 to 1876 the Polish painter undoubtedly knew Gérôme very well and treated him as his artistic master. In the catalogues of the Paris Salons his name was later annotated with the information that he was Gérôme's pupil.5

1 A portrait of Stanisław Chlebowski, 1860s, reprinted from Kłosy 1871, 1st half-year, p. 372

  1. When Chlebowski came to Paris, Gérôme already was an artist with many successes to his name, which gave him a strong position in the artistic world. In 1847 Gérôme made a successful debut at the Salon with the painting Cockfight, an example of the Neo-Grec current of his work. Later years brought other triumphs. In 1850 Prince Napoléon bought the canvass Greek Interior, and other works shown at the Salon were met with acclaim. We can name here such paintings as The Duel After a Masquerade (Salon 1857), The Death of Caesar (Salon 1859), King Candaules (Salon 1859), Fryne's Judgement (Salon 1861). Official commissions followed; Gérôme made the murals in the Churches St Martin-des-Champs and Saint-Séverin, and the famous house of Prince Napoléon in Avenue Montaigne. As a person much respected in the artistic circles he also fulfilled many prestigious functions, for example in 1864 he was appointed one of the three professors at the School of Fine Arts in Paris. The name of Gérôme is now associated mostly with paintings on the Oriental theme. The first Oriental scenes were presented at the 1857 Salon and they had been inspired by the artist's journey to Egypt. Although Gérôme repeatedly returned to historical subjects (Molière at the table of Louis XIV, The Grey Cardinal, The Tulip Folly), his work was dominated by Eastern genre scenes: people playing chess, bashi-bazouks resting in a doorway, belly-dancers, scenes in public baths, the sale of a slave woman, prayers, bazaars, street merchants, Eastern beauties, desert scenes and so on. Gérôme easily found buyers ready to pay handsome sums for these works. All the more so that he married Maria Goupil, daughter of an art dealer and antiquarian Adolf Goupil.6

  2. In the second half of the nineteenth century Jean-Léon Gérôme became the leading exponent of Orientalism in the French painting, especially in its "ethnographic" tendency. This term was used in reference to Gérôme by Emile Galichon ("Gazette des Beaux-Arts", 1868). It served to underline the photographic way of rendering detail, the extraordinarily minute finish and the impression of ethnographic accuracy. This artistic stance of Gérôme had found its earlier expressions in the work of other painters – careful observation of the life of the Orient, studying scholarly publications, travelling with study tours. Three decades earlier Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps claimed that his work from 1836 depicting Turkish children playing with a tortoise represented a typical Oriental street scene. The painters were much influenced by the publication of Edward William Lane's Account of the Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians (1836), an effect of the author's direct studies. The painters also decided to travel with research expeditions. In 1846 Jules Laurens went for a perilous journey to Persia with the geographer Xavier Himmair. In order better to understand and render the exotic locale of the Orient, the artists decided not only to travel, but also to live there. One example is John Frederick Lewis, who spent ten years in Cairo.7 Features of "ethnographic" Orientalism can be found in the work of such painters as Albert Aublet, Rudolf Ernst, Arthur Ferraris, Jean Lecomte du Noüy, Benjamin-Constant, Osman Hamdi Bey, Ludwig Deutsch, Charles Bargue. In the second half of the nineteenth century these artists enriched their oeuvre with scenes from the daily life of the Orient – markets, coffee shops, hawkers, beggars, bashi-bazouks, but the most popular theme was harem scenes with a strong erotic tone.8 Although already in the late 1860s artistic criticism took a negative view of the realist Orientalism, this current was present in exhibitions and popular among collectioners until the end of the century.9 In 1893 the Orientalist painters founded the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, which among other undertakings organized exhibitions of Islamic art.10

  3. Gérôme's work in his Paris atelier was often interrupted by his artistic journeys, which became the principal inspiration for his oeuvre. He first visited Istanbul in 1855, he travelled to Turkey also in 1871, 1875, and 1879. In 1857 he went with his fellow painters to Egypt, where he came back in 1862, 1868, 1869, 1871, 1874, and 1880. Gérôme also travelled to Syria, Jordan (1862), Jerusalem (1868), Spain (1873) and Algeria (1873, 1883).11 The frequent trips to the Middle East provided the artist with interesting themes, as well as allowing him to amass a collection of Oriental artistic craftwork, which became his store of props. The master encouraged his students to travel and sometimes took them with him for his Oriental wanderings, as he did for example with Albert Aublet.12

  4. Bearing in mind the foregoing remarks on Gérôme's artistic travels, we may consider it as very likely that it was him who inspired Stanisław Chlebowski to go to Turkey. Chlebowski made the decision to travel there in July or August 1864.13 For Chlebowski, who had travelled extensively across Europe, it was yet another artistic journey, but his expedition to the Orient turned into a several years' sojourn in Istanbul. What made him stay were commissions from Sultan Abdul Aziz. Later Chlebowski was appointed court painter of the Padishah and he remained in this function until September 1872.14

  5. During the Turkish stay of Stanisław Chlebowski his contacts with Gérôme became less intense. They renewed their acquaintance in the Autumn of 1873, when Chlebowski visited Paris for the first time in nine years. At that time he made preparations for the painting depicting The Arrival of Muhammad II to Constantinople. In Paris he bought a huge canvass, paints and implements.15 It was then that he met Gérôme, to whom he showed his studies and watercolours.16

  6. Perhaps already then, in Paris, Chlebowski invited Gérôme to Istanbul. He certainly renewed his offer in 1874, but at that time Gérôme was unable to come to Turkey.17 In the letters to his family Chlebowski was full of admiration for the French painter, for example he called Gérôme "the king of Paris painters".18