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Jean-Léon Gérôme's 'The Snake Charmer': A Twisted History

How one of the 19th century French painter's major works landed in the Berkshires.

June 13, 2010|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times

"The Snake Charmer": A Twisted History

1880: In his studio in Paris, Jean-Léon Gérôme paints this image of a naked figure, presumably a boy, uncoiling his snake before a small crowd in a palatial setting. Scholars today say he fabricated the scene from multiple sources, including a photograph of tile work in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Later that year, Adolphe Goupil, his dealer/publisher and also his father-in-law, sells the painting for 75,000 francs to New York collector Albert Spencer.

1888: Spencer sells the work for $19,500 to Alfred Corning Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune.

1893: Alfred Corning Clark loans out "The Snake Charmer" so it can be shown at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

1899: Alfred Corning Clark's widow, Elizabeth Scriven Clark, sells the work to the Schaus Art Gallery in New York for $10,000 or $12,000, in a transaction that might also have involved the receipt of another artwork.

1942: Parke-Bernet auction house in New York sells the work from the estate of Virginia Heckscher to French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel for a mere $500. (Gérôme had fallen that far out of favor.) Durand-Ruel was bidding for Sterling Clark, Alfred Corning Clark's son, who had grown attached to it when it was hanging in his family's house.

1955: The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., opens to the public, and Sterling Clark transfers title to the painting to the museum.

1978: Random House publishes Edward Said's book "Orientalism" with "The Snake Charmer" on the cover. Did Said, who died in 2003, chose the image himself? Clark curator Richard Rand says yes. "I once had the occasion to talk to Said about it, and he said he was driving through the Berkshires, stumbled on the Clark, and knew the moment he saw the painting: That is the cover of my book."

1983: Linda Nochlin publishes her essay "The Imaginary Orient" in Art in America, describing how "the insistent, sexually charged mystery at the center of this painting" in the form of the charmer's naked body suggests the "mystery of the East itself." Even the image of the decaying building is loaded, she writes, with stereotypes of "Eastern idleness and neglect."

2010: After being shown in the Getty exhibition, the painting will be a centerpiece of the Gérôme show at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris in October. Rand says this marks the "first time the work will be in France since it was painted."

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