This arresting picture was made after Gérôme returned to Paris from a twelve-week journey to the Near East in early 1868. He was at the height of his career when he dressed a model in his studio with textiles he had acquired during the expedition. The artist’s Turkish title for this picture—which translates as "headless"—evokes the unpaid irregular soldiers who fought ferociously for plunder under Ottoman leadership, although it is difficult to imagine this man charging into battle wearing such an exquisite silk tunic. Gérôme’s virtuosic treatment of textures provides a sumptuous counterpoint to the figure’s dignified bearing.
Gérôme specialized in a brand of photographic realism which, from the 1840s onward, distinguished him from the increasingly stale neoclassical style promulgated by the followers of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In 1859, Gérôme began a long and prosperous relationship with the dealer and art publisher Adolphe Goupil, and his success in the newly-established private marketplace liberated him from State commissions and submission to the Salon, although he continued to exhibit there. With Gérôme, the romanticism of earlier artists such as Delacroix and Ingres gives way to the very contemporary objective of recreating the subject depicted rather than evoking it.
Gérôme toured Egypt and Asia Minor from January 1 to April 13, 1868; his companions included Edmond About, who composed a novel about it (Le Fellah, 1869, dedicated to Gérôme), the journalist Frédéric Masson, the painter Léon Bonnat, and Gérôme's brother-in-law Albert Goupil, an amateur photographer. It is probable that he began work on this canvas in the months following his return to France, and it was completed by March 1869. As the Gérôme scholar Gerald Ackerman has observed, the artist’s Orientalist pictures were not necessarily painted or even conceived abroad, and many of them were executed in his studio using props acquired on his travels.
"Bashi-Bazouks were irregular Turkish troops of the Ottoman Empire. They were not paid for their services, but lived from plunder, and were especially feared for their ferocity" (Ackerman 1986, p. 83). Bashi-bazouk is the transliteration of a Turkish term whose literal definition is "broken-head," a reference to the reckless behavior of these soldiers of fortune; but the term may be translated idiomatically as "headless," because this takes into account the fact that the soldiers were not bound by a strict or disciplined hierarchy. The subject held obvious appeal throughout the nineteenth century: an example by Charles Bargue, dated 1875, is also in the Metropolitan Museum (87.15.102). Similar figures were included in many of Gérôme's paintings, alone and in groups, but none is as arresting an image as this. The expanse of pink silk across the figure's back, shoulders, and arms, combined with the shadow that hides his eyes, disperses and softens the visual impact of the many details of his costume. The figure's aloofness is a byproduct of the illusion that he has not yielded himself entirely to the painter, which endows him with a proud dignity. Photographic reproductions of the Wrightsman painting were circulated by Goupil, Gérôme's dealer, as early as 1869 or 1870 (Tinterow and Miller 2005, p. 390, fig. 1).
Although the distinguished collector Samuel Putnam Avery bought this painting in 1873, it drew considerable attention when a subsequent owner, Henry T. Cox, lent it to the 1884 exhibition organized to raise money for the pedestal for Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor (Exh. Brooklyn 1884). As noted by a critic for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1884): "A strong contrast to the handling of Munkacsy is the finished but powerful handling of Gerome [sic], seen in the Loan exhibition through a good sized canvas hung on the wall opposite the Assembly Room, and showing a half-length portrait of ‘A Bashi-Bazouk.’ The swarthy features of the fellow are shown partially in profile, and the dark color of the skin is brought out against the still darker background. He wears a loose, light silk tunic and a tall, elaborately decorated turban, while above one arm protrude the handles of two or three weapons. There is a great deal of character and dramatic power in the picture, and although not large it is an admirable example of the famous artist."
[2014; adapted from Tinterow and Miller 2005]
Inscription: Signed (left margin): J. L. GEROME
the artist (sold in March 1869 for Fr 4,000 to Goupil); [Goupil & Cie, Paris, 1869; stock no. 4028, as "Un Bachibouzouk. Étude grandeur nature"; sold in March for Fr 7,500 (£500) to Wallis]; [Henry Wallis of The French Gallery, London, 1869–73; sold on July 21, 1873 for £550 to Avery]; Samuel Putnam Avery, New York (from 1873); Henry T. Cox, Brooklyn (by 1884–d. 1899); his estate (1899–1902; his estate sale, American Art Galleries, New York, January 17, 1902, no. 72, for $1,600 to Opper); J. Opper (from 1902); sale, Sotheby's, London, June 23, 1981, no. 29, to Koch; William I. Koch, Boston (1981–94; sold to Acquavella); [Acquavella Galleries, New York, 1994; sold to Wrightsman]; Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York (1994–2008)
Paris. location unknown. "Exhibition of Cercle de l'Union Artistique," 1869 (possibly this picture) [see Ackerman 2000].
London. French Gallery. "Eighteenth Annual Winter Exhibition," November 1870, no. 25 [see Athenaeum 1870].
Brooklyn Art Association. "Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Statue Pedestal Fund," January 10–February 2, 1884, no. 71 (as "A Bachi Bouzouch," lent by Mr. H. T. Cox).
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse: European Painters in North Africa and the Near East," March 24–May 27, 1984, no. 34 (as "A Bashibazuk [Un Bashi-Bazouk]," anonymous loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse: European Painters in North Africa and the Near East," July 1–October 28, 1984, no. 34.
"Winter Exhibition at the French Gallery." Athenæum no. 2246 (November 12, 1870), p. 631, as "A Bachi-Bouzouck".
Samuel Putnam Avery Sr. Journal entry. July 21, 1873 [published in Madeleine Fidell Beaufort et al., eds., "The Diaries, 1871–1882, of Samuel P. Avery, Art Dealer," New York, 1979, p. 187], notes that he purchased this work from Wallis for £550.
"Opened: The Loan Exhibition for the Bartholdi Pedestal." Brooklyn Daily Eagle (January 10, 1884), p. 2.
"Propitious: The First Day of the Bartholdi Loan Exhibition." Brooklyn Daily Eagle (January 11, 1884), p. 2.
"The Bartholdi Statue: Brooklyn's Loan Exhibition of Paintings in Aid of the Pedestal Fund." New York Times (January 13, 1884), p. 6.
Fanny Field Hering. Gérôme: The Life and Works of Jean Léon Gérôme. New York, 1892, p. 211.
Gerald M. Ackerman. The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, with a catalogue raisonné. London, 1986, p. 276, no. 193, ill. pp. 79 and 227 (color and bw), calls it "Black Bashi-Bazouk" and "Bachi-Bouzouk nègre," dates it 1869, and states that it is an anonymous loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
19th Century European Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture. Sotheby's, New York. October 27, 1988, unpaginated, under no. 55, states that the painting is on loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Gerald M. Ackerman. Jean-Léon Gérôme: Monographie révisée, catalogue raisonné mis à jour. 2nd rev. ed. (1st ed., 1986). Paris, 2000, p. 272, no. 193, ill. pp. 84, 273 (color and black and white), calls it "Bachi-Bouzouk nègre" and dates it 1869.
Stephen R. Edidin inGérôme & Goupil: Art and Enterprise. Exh. cat., Musée Goupil, Bordeaux. Paris, 2000, pp. 125–26, under no. 79, ill., p. 157 [French ed., Paris, 2000].
Gary Tinterow and Asher Ethan Miller inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 390–92, no. 110, ill. (color and black and white), note that "Bashi-bazouk" is the transliteration of a Turkish term meaning "headless"; state that this picture was probably begun by the middle of 1868 and completed by March 1869.
Everett Fahy inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 33.
Gary Tinterow in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2008–2010." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 68 (Fall 2010), p. 58, ill. (color).
Sophie Makariou and Charlotte Maury inThe Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). Ed. Laurence des Cars, Dominique de Font-Réaulx, and Édouard Papet. Exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Paris, 2010, p. 260, fig. 122 (color).
The Orientalist Sale. Sotheby's, London. April 8, 2014, p. 16 (under no. 6), fig. 1 (color), illustrates it in the the entry for "Bashi-Bazouk" (MMA 2014.435.1).
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 438, no. 359, ill. pp. 368, 438 (color).
A photograph of the painting is mounted into the "Recueil; oeuvres de Jean-Léon Gérôme," vol. 9, no. 7, as "Bachi-Bouzouk nègre"; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, inv. no. DC- 293 (A+, 9) -FT4. This is one of twenty-eight albums containing photographs of paintings by Gérôme presented by his widow to the library (see Ackerman 1986).