Born in Vesoul near the Swiss border, Jean-Léon Gérôme grew up in comfort. His goldsmith father approved of his decision to become an artist and supported his study in Paris with Delaroche (q.v.) during the early 1840s. Delaroche's interest in historical reconstruction, precise detail, and smooth picture surface had a significant effect on the young student. After failing to win the Prix de Rome in 1846, which his father pressured him to enter, Gérôme decided to make his name at the Salons. His debut there in 1847 with A Cock Fight (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) was a huge success and brought him and his fellow neo-Grecs, as they were called, much attention. Several important commissions and purchases followed, including church decoration and the huge historical picture The Age of Augustus (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) that emulated the kind of classicizing panorama of Delaroche in the hemicycle for the École des Beaux-Arts. Gérôme also studied briefly with Charles Gleyre (1808-1874) after Delaroche closed his studio in 1842. Gleyre's travel and sketches from the Near and Middle East may also have played a critical role in introducing the young artist to another major interest of his career, orientalist subject matter. With the twenty thousand francs paid for The Age of Augustus, the artist treated himself to a trip to Constantinople with his actor-friend Edmond Got. Further travels to the Middle East followed, and Gérôme exhibited his first Egyptian themes in the 1857 Salon.
In the 1878 Universal Exposition in Paris, he exhibited his first attempts at sculpture, which corresponded closely with his painted works, first following their themes, then serving as models for his canvases, especially the Pygmalion pictures. During the 1880s he was, like several other artists, drawn to incorporate polychromy and various precious and semi-precious materials into his sculpture; this was known to be a widespread practice among ancient sculptors, and it heightened the illusion of lifelikeness as well as the decorative aspect of these works.
Although he had not succeeded at the École des Beaux-Arts, Gérôme received one of three prestigious professorships in 1863 following the somewhat controversial reforms of the fine arts institutions in Paris. His official rather than academic achievements made him a good candidate to lead the new generation of French painters out of the decadence into which many believed French art had fallen. He taught hundreds of students in his atelier at the École as well as at his independent studio and had an especially strong impact on his American students, such as Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928). Although the majority of Gérôme's students remember him as an exacting but fair master, he showed intractable resistance to the new modes of impressionism and symbolism and campaigned against the acceptance of Gustave Caillebotte's (1843-1893) bequest of such art to the French state.
In 1863 Gérôme married Marie Goupil, the daughter of well-known international art dealer Adolphe Goupil, who became the exclusive representative of his work. Goupil not only sold his son-in-law's pictures through his branches in Europe and New York, but he also disseminated their reputation through photographic reproductions.1 Gérôme received all the highest honors awarded to nineteenth-century artists and achieved considerable financial success.
1. See Linda Whiteley, "Goupil, (Jean-Michel-) Adolphe," Dictionary of Art (London, 1996), 13:228; and Musée Goupil, Conservatoire de L'image Industrielle Bordeaux, État des lieux 1 (Bordeaux, 1994), esp. 9-36.