Guards at the Door of a Tomb

Jean-Léon Gérôme, 'Guards at the Door of a Tomb', 1870s.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

Guards at the Door of a Tomb, 1870s

Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm
Presented, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, 1950

Gérôme was the most successful and influential artist of the Orientalist movement in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most of his Near Eastern scenes depict Egypt, especially contemporary Cairo where this composition appears to be set. A sentinel stands before a tomb, armed with a musket. His two companions have laid their arms aside and are resting in the strong sunshine: a silver decorated rifle has been leant against the wall. The four handprints, so evident against the bleached white wall, are the bloody handprints of the faithful. Above the door and below the arch, with its stalactite vaulting, six chains with ornamental balls are suspended from a wooden beam, with small bells and scales (the symbols of justice) swinging from four of them.

Gérôme employed a careful, highly polished technique of laying down thin layers of paint. This, coupled with his fidelity to detail, contributes to the remarkable realism found in his works. When working at home in his studio, he used props brought back from his travels, and he also used photographs as 'aides-mémoire'.