Did “kitsch” as we understand it today — ingratiating, death-denying sentimentality and tendentiousness — exist in the late 19th century?
Sure. It was born then. In art, it went by names like Bouguereau, Cabanel, and Gerome. Paintings by these slick purveyors of the etiolated academic tradition had lost almost all connection with modern reality. Their art pandered to fantasists and revanchists — the complacently rich.
Nonetheless, many of the pictures they painted were more than just expensive: They were technically amazing. And every now and then, they could be incredibly funny.
Take this painting by Jean-Leon Gerome, which has been in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts for more than a century.
What an absolute nine-course degustation of a picture, replete with amuses-bouche, palate-cleansers, and candied fruits!
In a way, it’s not to be laughed at: The period detail, the credible re-creation of a complex space, and above all, the insanely vivid colors, which pop against the uniform tan background like preposterous tropical fish, are all stupendously — and soberly — done.
But then, thank heavens, Gerome actually invites us to laugh.
For what he shows is a staircase in the palace of France’s Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu, the “Red Cardinal,” became Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624, helping him rule France for 18 crucial years.
Gerome, however, paints not Richelieu — a great patron of the arts — but his chief adviser, Francois Leclerc du Tremblay, the gray cardinal, or “eminence grise.” (The phrase, deriving from Leclerc’s gray Capuchin habit, has entered the English language as a term for someone wielding power behind the scenes.)
A religious zealot intent on launching a new crusade against the Turks, Father Joseph, as Leclerc was known, was Richelieu’s right-hand man, his confidante, his “consolation and support,” as the cardinal admitted when Leclerc died in 1638. Although deeply involved in affairs of state, Leclerc lived an austere life and never neglected his monastic duties.
So Gerome’s picture, with its elaborately bowing courtiers, is a joke about sycophancy. Given Leclerc’s absorption in his book, it conveys, if just a little heavy-handedly, the obliviousness, the chutzpah, the outrageous impunity of the truly powerful.
And it reminds us, too, that real power has no need to display itself. Steve Jobs. Mao.
Jesus. Siddhartha: These guys didn’t dress up. It’s the much less secure Napoleons, Khadafys, and Idi Amins who require costumes.
Still, for some reason — maybe it’s because of Leclerc’s ostentatious involvement in his book — I think this picture is not just about political power. It might also be a joke about art, and all the unreasonable demands of those who create it.
After all, the conditions required for making art so often are unreasonable. Think of Leclerc as an artist, and Gerome’s picture could be a parody of what the writer Glenway Wescott called “the absurd position of the artist in the midst of the disorders of those who would honor and support him but who can scarcely be expected to keep quiet around him for art’s sake.”
Ask the wives of Gauguin or V.S. Naipaul. Ask Iris Murdoch’s husband. Ask Picasso’s children: Artists, like any other breed of zealot, can be appalling tyrants.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.