- The Homoerotics of Orientalism by Joseph Allen Boone
Many editions of Edward W. Said's classic study Orientalism (1978) feature on the cover a detail from a captivating oil painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme.1 Entitled The Snake Charmer, this striking work, which dates from around 1879–1880, has become almost synonymous with Said's revered inquiry into "the way cultural dominance . . . operated" when Western culture turned its attention—as it did so frequently in the nineteenth century—to the Middle East (1994, 28).2 More recently, Gérôme's Snake Charmer generated further interest when it was a centerpiece in the magnificent exhibition of his art that was shown at the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles), the Musée d'Orsay (Paris), and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid) in 2010–11. The exquisite catalog accompanying this event contains an informative entry by Dominique de Font-Réaulx, who remarks that when Gérôme and his contemporaries (such as Charles Landelle and Martial Thabard) represented snake charmers, they were focusing on a figure that was likely to "instill fascination, terror, delight, and dread in anyone who looked at him" (2010, 278). The painting, as several art historians have remarked, adopts its architectural features from various periods and locations during the French painter's extensive travels in the Turkish, Arab, and Persian world, just as it reveals his acquaintance with photographic prints of these different settings. Gérôme presents a young nude boy charming a large snake (the species is unclear) in a room that draws on details he had copied when visiting the Golden Passage of the harem in the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul. Gérôme, however, carefully magnified the scale of the beautiful wall tiling, and in doing so enhanced the grandeur of the decorative turquoise-hued backdrop to the scene. In this imposing environment, in which calligraphy adapted from the Koran adorns the upper parts of the back wall, ten men of different ages and different ethnicities (including a chieftain in the middle) are sitting down, in a fairly [End Page 247] close-knit group, with their backs to the lustrous tiling. Meanwhile, the floor—as Sarah Lees (2012) observes—has a pattern that is most probably taken from the Mosque of ibn Amr-al-As, Cairo (the stonework looks similar to that in Gérôme's Prayer in the Mosque ). Some of the men have their weapons propped upright, while a cross-legged older male is piping on a flute in the right-hand part of the canvas, with his instrument pointing toward the boy.
Gérôme's thoughtful arrangement ensures that we focus on the central figure. With his back turned to us, the slender boy stands upright on a rug, holding aloft the head of a muscular reptile whose lithe body coils twice around his torso. The fact that the creature clothes the child's chest and back means that the viewer's gaze lingers on the figure's slim legs that lead up to his bare buttocks. At the same time, it is clear that the assembled men cannot avert their collective gaze from the accomplished performer. As Font-Réaulx reminds us, in 1983 Linda Nochlin—in her reflections on Gérôme's Orientalism—commented: "The defining mood of the painting is mystery" (Nochlin 1989, 35). In her astute analysis, Nochlin observes: "We are permitted only a beguiling rear view of the boy holding the snake. . . . A frontal view, which would reveal unambiguously both his sex and the fullness of his dangerous performance, is denied us." It therefore follows that viewers remain "haunted by certain absences in the painting": phenomena that are not seen directly but instead vicariously through the eyes of the sundry Middle Eastern men transfixed by the child's finely choreographed routine.
To Joseph Allen Boone, in his voluminous Homoerotics of Orientalism, Gérôme's famous Snake Charmer is a crucial point of reference, for several related reasons. He first mentions this painting, which creates...