Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904)
Michelangelo being Shown the Belvedere Torso, 1849
Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 14 3/4 in.
Signed and dated lower left on sculpture base: J. L. Gerome 1849
In the late 19th century, Gérôme was France’s pre-eminent academic artist. Best known for his smoothly finished and meticulously detailed Orientalist imagery, his historical genre paintings were also popular with collectors and the public. This early work depicts an imaginary event in the life of the great Renaissance painter and sculptor Michelangelo (1474–1564). A young boy guides the hands of the old and apparently blind artist towards the famous ancient statue of the Belvedere Torso. Michelangelo never went blind, but he was a fervent admirer of the Torso, and his endorsement propelled the sculpture’s reputation through the ensuing centuries.
This painting by the then young and still unknown Gérôme is a poignant invention rich in contrasts: old age and youth; touch and sight; and, most intriguingly, the muscular white marble torso and the delicate, colorfully attired apprentice. It is a scene of an aspiring artist contemplating his artistic roots while giving testimony to his future career. Gérôme must have identified with the apprentice, who is in awe of the great Renaissance master, and through him the artist pays tribute to his own classical ideal. The portfolios and tools also allude to the concepts of learning and creation, as both an intellectual and sensory process.