The spooky, wonderful image above, Duel After A Masked Ball, was painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, one of the great masters of Victorian academic art. To me, his work aspires to the condition of cinema and can be studied in that regard with great profit. I think one finds in it, both formally and in terms of subject matter, the reflection of many concerns that would help shape the emerging art of movies.
Gérôme used a photo-authoritative style to make his visions of Oriental scenes and his recreations of historical periods alive and true to viewers who were beginning to process the visual world more and more through the medium of photography. He was concerned with narrative images and used the illusion of depth to draw the viewer into those images — the drama of space obsessed him. He was so concerned with stereometric forms that he also worked regularly
as a sculptor.
Though he died in 1904, before movies came into their own as a plastic and narrative medium, he would have thrilled, I think, at their capacity to carry his aesthetic methods into new realms and elaborate them fantastically.
Gérôme‘s Technicolor über-photographs can seem like frame-grabs from imaginary movies. You can see the compositional style of Lawrence Of Arabia (and John Ford) in his desert scenes . . .
. . . foreshadowings of Intolerance in his 18th-Century tableaux . . .
. . . the epic visions of De Mille in his Biblical scenes . . .
Griffith, De Mille and Ford would have been familiar with Gérôme directly — his work was wildly popular and widely reproduced in the time of their youth. Lean may have echoed Gérôme simply by sharing his formal concerns, though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Lean knew and admired his paintings. In any case, the profound connection between Victorian academic art and the cinema is nowhere more evident than in the work of this great painter.
To me, the image below of Pygmalion’s sculpture Galatea coming to life can serve as a metaphor for the advent of movies, when the aesthetic aspirations of the Victorian academic painter came into fuller life through motion itself.