Exactly 200 years ago, in 1816, Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion founded the Fitzwilliam Museum with his bequest. The Fitzwilliam Museum opened to the public in 1848, the same year Jean-Léon Gérôme painted this work which makes it a fitting acquisition to commemorate our bicentenary year.
This striking full-length swagger portrait set against an impossibly steep staircase, represents Claude-Armand Gérôme (1827-50), the artist’s younger brother. Claude-Armand was recorded as being brilliant, as well as ‘very gentle, nonchalant and even lazy’ and is shown wearing the dark uniform of the École Polytechnique in Paris, a prestigious school of higher education founded in 1794. Gérôme has subtly observed the blacks and greys of his sober costume, while he focuses attention on his brother’s face, with its drooping eyelids and slight pout. Claude-Armand would tragically die of meningitis two years later.
Painted during the early years of Gérôme’s career, when he was in his prime, it is a rare and superb example of Gérôme’s skills as a portraitist. Exhibited at the 1848 Salon in Paris, the portrait earned Gérôme a Second Class medal, helping to consolidate his reputation as one of the foremost artists of his time.
This picture is a recent rediscovery - it remained in the artist’s collection until his death, and was long presumed lost until its reappearance at auction in France in 2013. Recent cleaning has confirmed it as a masterpiece, and in unusually fine condition.
This portrait – so appropriate for Cambridge - of a student at the time of his graduation is a major addition to the Fitzwilliam Museum collection.