Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), “Bashi-Bazouk,” 1868, oil on canvas, 31-3/4 x 26 in. © MET 2017

In this ongoing series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week we discuss an arresting portrait by a 19th century Orientalist.

In was early in 1868 when famed Orient painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) returned to Paris after a 12-week journey to the Near East. Having been exposed once more to the vivid characters, colors, and textures of foreign lands, Gérôme did the only thing he could: paint.

One of the works that resulted from this particular tenure abroad is one of the most arresting and vivid portraits from the 19th century, titled “Bashi-Bazouk.” Located today in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Bashi-Bazouk” displays a black youth in about half length. Wearing an elaborate and colorful array of clothing, the sitter faces away from the viewer, his back turned. His rifle resting on his left shoulder, the sitter makes a slight turn toward the viewer and gazes out of the frame just over his right shoulder.

Set against a cool, olive-toned background, the subject wears a stunning salmon-colored silk jacket. He also wears a colorful and tall turban, which wraps tightly around his head with shimmering tassels dangling beneath. Gérôme’s attention to the sitter’s character and, more prominently, the array of textures, is truly mesmerizing. “Bashi-Bazouk” is a Turkish title that translates as “headless”; the word was meant to designate unpaid soldiers who fought “ferociously for plunder under Ottoman leadership,” the Met reports.

To learn more, visit the MET.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


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