What does Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1866 painting ‘Slave Market’ say about today’s extremist politics?
Recently, the Berlin branch of the far-right, anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) put up posters across the German capital featuring the slogan ‘So that Europe Won’t Become Eurabia’ over an image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1866 painting Slave Market. The Frenchman’s artwork depicts a naked, fair-skinned woman surrounded by turbaned Arab-looking men; they are sizing her up, one of them running his finger animalistically through her mouth.
The AfD’s xenophobic bona fides are clear: last year, they proposed sending 500,000 Syrian refugees out of Germany and the party’s use of the term ‘Eurabia’ on their posters refers to the conspiracy theory that Arabs are planning to take over Europe. When questioned about co-opting Gérôme’s artwork for their own xenophobic purposes, the AfD’s spokesperson, Ronald Glaeser, said in a statement: ‘The German public has the right to find out the truth about the possible consequences of illegal mass immigration.’ The implication, it would seem, is that white women will be somehow systematically enslaved or subjugated if refugees from the Near East are allowed into Germany.
Slave Market belongs to the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. In a statement to frieze, the Clark’s director, Olivier Meslay, condemned the AfD’s use of the artwork, saying that he’s ‘written to them insisting that they cease and desist in using this painting’, adding that ‘the Clark strongly believes art should not be co-opted to promote political messages’.
Much of the news about this story has, thus far, been centred on the Clark’s calls to ban the racist use of this artwork. Meslay, of course, is right that the message the AfD is attaching to Gérôme’s painting is morally wrong. But it would be disingenuous to imply that the artwork is entirely apolitical.
Gérôme, like most Frenchmen of his time, viewed his own ethnicity as the standard and considered Arabs to be inferior and aberrant, according to the art historian Linda Nochlin, who, in her 1983 Art in America article ‘The Imaginary Orient’, noted of Gérôme that he was certain of ‘the unassailable Otherness of the characters in his narrative’. Works such as Slave Marketallowed the ostensibly white, male, mid-19th-century, Western European viewer to feel as though he had a superior politics to the Arabs depicted – since he would not engage in the barbaric practices of the slave trade – while also satisfying his desire for titillation and his racist expectations.
AfD campaign billboard, 17 April 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Sean Gallup
In an essay published by the Clark about the painting, curator and art historian Sarah Lees notes: ‘It is unlikely, however, that the artist actually observed a scene like this, as there is little, if any, reliable documentation of such slave markets.’ The painting and its setting exist only in the imagination of Western viewers and their biases. AfD, therefore, aren’t really taking the work out of context. Gérôme intended for his painting to be viewed by white Europeans; anti-Arab biases are baked into the depiction.
In his review of Slave Market, when it was shown at the Paris Salon of 1867, Maxime du Camp wrote that the depiction also perfectly met Western expectations. ‘The poor girl is standing, submissive, humble, resigned, with a fatalistic passivity that the painter has very skilfully rendered,’ he notes. ‘A man examines her, looking at her teeth as one looks at those of a horse, and appreciates the merchandise with that defiant eye that is particular to Arabs.’ Such a statement – which seems to have correctly captured Gérôme’s intentions – at once lets the white European viewer feel morally superior to anyone who would enslave another (a preposterous notion in the mid-19th century when colonialism was still in full swing) while also playing into racist stereotypes about ‘defiant’-eyed Arabs.
The painting is in the public domain, free of copyrights and permissions, so the AfD has full legal rights to use Slave Market as it wishes. Meslay, in his statement, said he could only ‘appeal to civility on the part of the AfD Berlin’, which is no doubt a stretch for such a riotously xenophobic group.
The truth of the matter is that there are bad actors, like the AfD, who will use artworks such as Slave Market to try to advance their own racist agendas. But we should not pretend that the AfD is co-opting an otherwise racially blameless painting. With this image of a masked Arab man, his fingers in the mouth of a helpless, nude, fair-skinned woman, the party hardly even needed to add their slogan to get their point across. Gérôme’s painting was always racist, always Orientalist, always imagined by the artist without ever having visited or seen anything like it – because, almost certainly, it did not exist. To that end, art history is ever-vital, since understanding the thoughts, biases and hypocrisies of Gérôme’s time is also the very means by which we can comprehend those of our own – to understand how unlikely Gérôme’s Slave Marketis, is to understand how outlandish the AfD’s xenophobia and conspiracies are, too.