Monday, September 17, 2012
I can't recall whether it was a 4th or 5th grade social studies textbook where I first came across Jean-Léon Gérôme's depiction of gladiatorial combat, Pollice Verso, and I've never forgotten it. Gérôme (1824-1904) was a popular painter of many years whose illustrative style remained similar over his lifetime while his subjects went from the historical to the orientalist. Pollice Verso, which means "with a turned thumb," is among his best known work and was a consistent influence on the cinema from the silents through the "sword and sandal" epics of the 1960's. The only problem is that, historically, no one is for certain which direction the thumb was going to signify death for the fallen: thumb up, down, horizontal, or hidden within the hand.
It's only been a couple of decades later that I finally got to see the painting in person at the first Gérôme retrospective in 40 years which showed at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. While I appreciate many art historians' dismissal of Gérôme, when standing in front of this work, it's hard not to get swept up in the imagery to the point fo practically feeling the heat, and hearing the roar of the crowd. There are layers of intricate detail worked into the reflections in the gladiator's helmet and gauntlet that I'd never seen in any reproduction. So while he may not sit comfortably with everyone among the great Masters, it would be difficult to deny his ability to stir the imagination.