The Gérôme Helmet (work in progess)
I. In the Artist’s Studio, Paris, 1869
Gérôme lifted the heavy tiger pelt from where it had hung on the wall for a decade, flanked by Gérôme’s own paintings, gilded and framed; partially hidden behind a boullework cabinet piled high with swords and metal figurines. Careful not to tread on the massive skin, Gérôme stepped around suits of Ottoman armor and navigated past several easels, each with a different unfinished painting eagerly awaiting the artist’s permission to come to life. Gérôme gingerly laid the animal skin across Charles’s body, which perched upon a low bench, had the relaxed air of a fair maiden at the harem bath.
“Oh come on Gérôme, you must be kidding me. First the turban and now this?” Charles said with a light chuckle as Gérôme adjusted the pelt.
“Stay still,” Gérôme replied with a stern voice. He stepped back, and with one arm hugging his chest, the other shrewdly stroking his chin, Gérôme examined his breathing statue. He took another few steps back before hiking up his pinstripe trousers, re-adjusting his tailcoat, and crouching on the floor. He remained like this for what felt like ages for Charles, burning under the hot pelt in the stuffy Paris studio. But Gérôme’s former teacher did not complain of his discomfort, sympathizing with and admiring the painstaking care with which Gérôme approached the details in his work.
Without a word, Gérôme went to the boullework cabinet, reached inside, and unearthed a steel helmet with an imposing neck and nose guard, and a pointed top to accommodate a warrior’s turban. Circling the helmet was a thick band containing an inscription with elongated Arabic script. The object was a favorite of Gérôme’s, having used it in more than a dozen paintings. In this case, the brassy sheen of metal would serve as a foil to the resplendent texture of the tiger pelt.
“Here, hold this in your right hand,” Gérôme said, handing the helmet to Charles. Seeing his model fumble with the heavy object, Gérôme steadied the helmet with one hand and used the other to position Charles’ right hand on the stiff turban ornament topping the helmet.
“Here, like this,” Gérôme said, re-adjusting the chainmail so it draped over the tiger pelt, “Let it rest on your thigh.”
Bending down, Gérôme noticed the tiger pelt had consumed most of Charle’s body. The only limb visible was the hand now holding the helmet. The artist lowered himself further, grasped the edge of the pelt, and moved it closer to Charles’ body until a black, laced-up leather shoe emerged. Hardly a moment’s hesitation passed before Gérôme reach for his sitter’s foot.
“Gérôme! What are you doing?” Charles said pulling his foot back under the tiger pelt.
“Let me take your shoe off,” Gérôme said with a gesture coaxing Charles’ foot from safe cover. “Trust me, friend. This is going to be great. A masterpiece!”
With an outside expression of defiance that betrayed an inner sense of pride for both his artist friend-once-student and he as master-turned-muse, Charles offered his shoed foot to Gérôme who kneeled at Charles’ feet. Gérôme slowly untied the thin string laces, lightly grasped the toe and the heel, and removed the shoe.
“Relax your foot,” Gérôme instructed Charles. “Yes, exactly. Let it flop.”
Gérôme straightened himself and stepped backwards once again. His expression bordered on anger with furrowed brows and his strong hand again stroked his beardless chin. After a long silence in which Charles refused to break eye contact, Gérôme gave yet another instruction, this time for the model to raise his left hand. The artist ordered his mannequin to stop when his arm was lifted to chest height, slightly in front of his body, with the fingers of a palmed-turned-up hand slyly peaking out from the shrouding pelt. The gesture was one of offering and it was exactly what Gérôme had been seeking.
II. At the Bazaar, Cairo, 1857
Dressed in a linen shirt complete with a tall standing collar, a loose-fitted sack coat, and dark trousers tucked into tall leather boots, Gérôme was sweltering in the desert heat. He had arrived to Cairo only days before. However, images of the exotic land had been emblazoned into Gérôme’s inner eye since entering the atelier of Charles Gleyre thirteen years prior. Stoic ruins that naturally rise from the desolate landscape; curving dahabieh riverboats that sail into surreal sunsets; and monstrous palm trees that become veiled in a film of swirling dust. These were the romantic scenes that dominated Gérôme’s dreams for more than a decade. This was however, not the Egypt with which Gérôme had been confronted.
Gérôme’s Egypt—though still in its infancy—was not a whimsical fantasy, nor an agonizing night terror. Somewhere between marveling at corpulent belly dancers tending to water pipes, and coughing fits resulting from perennial dust clouds, Gérôme found a great sense of satisfaction. In his letters to his mistress and his teacher, both residing in Paris, Gérôme wrote of utter contentment.
The experience was too new, too strange, to imbue joy or delight, but still, the peculiar unpleasantries like eating with one’s hands and the lack of suitable dress for hot weather were not unbearable. Instead, the sensation felt most strongly was curiosity. Just as he did in Paris, Gérôme carried a sketchbook while in Cairo. However, he would find it interesting upon fingering through this time capsule years later that he recorded his observations with words more often than he did with figures. When asked about this back home in Paris, Gérôme would recall life in Cairo was too fast for one to take the time to simply stand on a street corner and sketch. The chaos of the Orient required Gérôme to document his perceptions as quickly as possible, and then to draw and paint his images with his written clues, attempting to render the people, landscapes and architecture with utmost accuracy.
His desire to portray reality led Gérôme to the bazaar where he spent countless hours fingering the course wool of prayer rugs and handling the cool ceramic of imported Iznik tiles. Here, under the cover of wooden beams draped with stained cloth no longer white and thick knotted carpets, he found refuge from the forceful Eastern sun. His other senses were overwhelmed however, by the unfamiliar pungency of turmeric and nutmeg; the hypnotic sweetness of cardamom and clove. Gérôme found himself wandering in a deep stupor, experiencing touch and smell without the bodily attachment to thought or mind. In each direction on the narrow dirt path, he was met with merchants, whose outstretched hands held glass beads, tealeaves and linen scraps.
One man in particular caught his attention. He was not wearing the traditional wrapped turban and cloth gallibaya white robe, which hung loosely without shape. Instead, his dress was characterized by blooming pants of a rich blue hue that hugged the merchant at the knees, and a wide belt laced with gold thread, into which he had tucked a rich deep green shirt with long sleeves. A red scarf was draped around the man’s neck and a matching neat red skullcap rest on the back of his head. Hanging behind him was an enormous carpet with a blue and red decorative pattern that matched the color scheme of the man’s costume. Gérôme could not see an entrance to a shop, only this one carpet. He was intrigued, and the man’s disinterest in Gérôme only heightened his curiosity.
In his rehearsed Arabic, Gérôme asked the merchant if he was selling anything besides the single carpet. Recognizing the artist as yet another eager European come to plunder his ancient fatherland, the merchant invited the buyer inside, speaking French with a throaty accent. Surprised and impressed by the merchant’s sophistication, Gérôme followed the man behind the carpet and through an open courtyard. The duo passed through a tall, open passageway decorated in soft blue tiles with gold accents that reminded Gérôme of his own Baroque homeland. In front of him stood a group of bearded men wearing traditional robes in rich shades of canary yellow, indigo blue and clementine red. Completing each gentleman’s ensemble was an intricate headdress to match his individually colored costume. As Gérôme looked on in awe, he took delight in noticing the gold slippers worn by the man in the yellow dress and the maroon boots donned by the fellow in the red robe. Color matching had long been a fashion in Paris, and Gérôme suddenly felt at home.
Gérôme was so focused on the native men that he nearly missed the object of their observation, the product the skull caped merchant had brought him here to see. A massive carpet with a cobalt blue medallion laced with delicate flowers and arabesque vines was hung from a third-floor balcony, resting just above the floor 10 meters below. Three men stood behind the carpet on the upper floor, leaning on the balcony and peering down at the potential buyers. They were no doubt placing bets on how much the European would offer for the indigenous rug.
The men would be disappointed however, to find Gérôme distracted by a shimmering object left ignored among a heap of discarded textiles. When the merchant approached Gérôme asking him what he thought of “the world’s most magnificent rug,” the artist replied with polite enthusiasm, asking to view it in closer detail. The merchant took Gérôme by the arm and ushered him to forward. When the merchant grasped Gérôme’s hand, the artist could not help but notice the Egyptian’s gruff brown skin against his own frail whiteness. The merchant guided Gérôme’s hand over the thick, rough asymmetrical knots of wool and silk, stopping at a peony to explain its expression of power and a tulip to talk about its promises of prosperity.
Standing nose-to-nose with the rug, Gérôme became intoxicated by the combination of visual stimulus and palpable warmth radiating from the thick material. Feeling faint, he pulled his hand away from the merchant, hung his head low, and stepped backwards.
“Here, here. You feel its magic, no?” said the merchant with a cool smile. He placed an arm around Gérôme’s waist and helped lower him onto a plush floor cushion. Recovering his senses, Gérôme noticed the other men were now in an adjacent corner, lounging on floor cushions similar to the one that Gérôme now occupied. They were taking turns smoking from a tall water pipe and Gérôme felt a sharp pang of yearning for tobacco. Re-focusing his attention on the merchant, Gérôme gestured toward the discarded textiles and asked the Egyptian if he could look through the pile.
“Those are old prayer rugs, my friend,” explained the merchant, “We strip them back to their naked state and re-weave the patterns with new thread. Nothing in there for you. Come, I’ll show you more splendid carpets.”
Gérôme ignored the merchant and rose. Upon approaching the pile, he wasted no time in reaching for the metal object. He was surprised by its size and weight, but not nearly as stunned as he was by its beauty. A bit tarnished but nonetheless magnificent, the metal object revealed itself to be a warrior’s helmet with hefty chainmail. Gérôme caressed the object, feeling the inscribed Arabic script that though he could not read, nevertheless retained a mystical quality. Gérôme traced the characters and then felt with the palm of his hand, the shape of the helmet, which spiraled upwards in the shape of a triangular turban.
“Now that is a true treasure,” the merchant said, breaking Gérôme’s trance. “Look here, it has the emblem of the Ottoman Treasury.”
“I’ll offer you 20 geneih for it,” the artist said, his eyes still on the helmet.
III. At the Harem, 1857
Later that evening, Gérôme was invited by Ismael Pasha to the harem.
Gérôme had met the Khedive of Egypt years prior when Ismael was studying at the École d’État-Major in Paris. Ismael was the grandson of the former governor of Egypt and Sudan, famous for seizing control of Egypt following Napoleon’s defeat of Egyptian forces in 1798. His heritage was cause for fame and Ismael quickly became a celebrity among the Parisian elite. Gérôme however, was not interested in the rumors surrounding the numbers of slaves he kept in Cairo, nor did he gossip about the Pasha’s intentions, as so many of his wary peers did. Instead, Gérôme took a selfish interest in Ismael for the glimmer of insight he could offer into the mysterious land of the Orient, which Gérôme so deeply longed to visit.
Ismael’s taste for French prostitutes and Gérôme’s discrete accessibility to the ladies of the night, who he often paid as models for his paintings, made the two quick friends. When Gérôme sent word he would be visiting Egypt on an artist expedition, Ismael assured his friend would be given luxurious accommodations in his family’s palace compound, as well as unlimited access to the splendors of Cairo, which included not only the pyramids and ancient tombs, but also the harems and opium dens.
At the entrance to the harem, Gérôme paused to exchange his customary greeting with the guard. Asim was an unnervingly large slave from Darfur, with skin as dark as black olives and hands as large as eesh baladi bread. His eyes however, exposed an inner softness, which immediately touched Gérôme and all others brave enough to look at Asim’s long enough to see beyond his monstrous size.
Approaching the turquoise-tiled arch marking the entrance to the harem, Gérôme gave a friendly wave and called out the customary greeting, “Salam.” Asim, as usual, did not answer with words, but his eyes seemed to accept and return the greeting, which literal translated, “peace be upon you.”
Gérôme handed Asim a small wrapped package of halawa. The guard nodded in thanks and reverence, betrayed a small smile, and opened the heavy wooden door.
Inside, Gérôme was met with a hypnotic swirl of sickly sweet sheesha. Moving through the haze, Gérôme nodded politely at the familiar women lounging on silk cushions and smoking water pipes. They wore wide pants that accentuated their childbearing hips, and strings of pearls over sheer tops that revealed large drooping breasts. They all had coarse, flowing hair that remained partially concealed under elaborate, jewel-encrusted headdresses. Fatima, a young Circassian girl with desperate eyes and a small mouth, lightly grazed Gérôme’s leg as he approached.
“Ah, my dear Fatima,” Gérome said kneeling, “I have something for you.”
Fatima remained silent as Gérôme reached into his large rucksack and produced a neatly wrapped bundle of dates. It was usual for harem visitors to bring gifts, but Gérôme liked the power and expectation created by the candies.
Fatima smiled and Gérôme gingerly kissed her cheek. When he pulled back, he noticed her fair skin had turned deep pink.
“Gérôme!” the call turned Gérôme’s attention away from Fatima, who was undoubtedly relieved their exchange would end with only a kiss.
Under a golden archway, Ismael Pasha was seated with his concubine and looking on as a belly dancer, nude with the exception of a gold ankle bracelet and translucent blue skirt flowing behind her, twirled at his feet. “Gérôme,” he moaned once more, beckoning his friend.
Gérôme sat, leaned his head against the wall, and let out a laugh as two of Ismael’s favorite concubines moved to his side and started tugging playfully at his clothes. Gérôme had been a frequent visitor to the Parisian brothels, but he often felt them cold. The constant doting the harem girls lay upon their visitors, as if they were lovers intoxicated by their suitor’s passion, gave Gérôme cause for bliss.
"Gérôme! Sadeke! Friend!” Ismael exclaimed between deep chuckles, “You know Nefertiti? She has the name of a queen and you better believe she lives up to her pedigree.” The dancing woman stopped twirling for a moment and swayed her hips in Gérôme‘s direction. She leaned over him and placed her bosom directly at his mouth.
“Ha! Much better than your delicate little ballerinas, huh?” Ismael said, slapping the thigh of one of the girls laying kisses at his ears.
Gérôme was tempted to fall into a deep drunkenness caused by the combined poisons of the girls and the hookah, but he had the helmet in his rucksack and he needed to ask if Ismael knew anything about his found treasure.
“Ismael, I have something to show you,” Gérôme said. “Come outside with me.”
Ismael drew on the hookah and slowly breathed out, watching as the smoke temporarily veiled Nefertiti’s legs. Lightheaded, he followed Gérôme to the balcony.
Leaning over the balcony and gazing solemnly over the 500 year-old domes and minarets, Ismael said, “Our history goes back long before our time, my friend. You know your King Louis IX invaded my Egypt in 1249? He wanted to capture Jerusalem; but of course, the Mamluks defeated your Frenchmen. They were the true lords, you know. The Mamluks. They built all of this and they owned all of this. But not even half a century ago, my grandfather ended it all. He killed them. He killed them all.”
Gérôme stood slightly behind Ismael and let the heavy air between the Pasha’s words and between the two men breath.
“So, sadeke, what is it you wanted to show me?” Ismael asked, turning to Gérôme with a toothy grin.
Gérôme set down the rucksack and with slow, deliberate movements, lifted the helmet. He paused to admire it for a moment, moving his thumb over the Arabic inscription, and then walked closer toward Ismael.
“Do you know what it is?” Gérôme asked, not wanting to give Ismael any clues.
“It’s a helmet, bahaayim.”
Gérôme ignored Ismael’s insult and repeated his question.
“Let me see it,” Ismael sighed, recognizing his friend was in no mood for humor.
Gérôme gave Ismael a warring glare and handed him the helmet. Ismael held it up to his face, so that his eyes were level with the eyeholes. He furrowed his brow and slowly turned the helmet to read the Arabic script that wrapped around the object.
“You’ve been swindled, my friend,” Ismael said, lowering the helmet and turning it toward Gérôme. “Look here, the Arabic? It doesn’t say anything.”
“What do you mean, it doesn’t say anything? It’s written right there.”
“zayy iz-zift. Crap. Nonsense.”
“But what about here?” said Gérôme, pointing to the small circle with three parallel lines, identified by the merchant as the emblem of the Ottoman treasury.
“Forget it, Gérôme. Let’s go back to Nerfertiti. Didn’t you like her?”
The next day, Gérôme was awoken by a sharp knock.
“Gérôme, are you in there? It’s urgent. Gérôme.”
Gérôme grumbled and pushed himself out of bed. He stood at the door and straightened his rumpled sleeping dress before unlatching the lock.
“What is it you boudin? You know never to wake a sleeping Frenchman.”
“My apologies sir, but I’ve been told to give you this,” the squat porter said sympathetically, handing Gérôme an envelope made of delicate parchment.
Gérôme nodded and took the envelope. As he shut the door, he suddenly felt the weight of his sleeping gown like a lead blanket pressing down on his shoulders. He moved slowly to the bed, sat on the edge, and opened the envelope.
IV. Paris, 1858
Back in Paris, Gérôme watched as a porter unloaded his treasures: a large carpet he would hang on the wall, another one of less quality he would keep on the floor; boxes of lapis lazuli bracelets and amethyst necklaces; delicate glass bottles filled with rosewater and cassia; brass shields and enameled swords; cloth turbans; a meter high water pipe; and his most treasured item of all – the helmet.
The porter unpacked all of the items, placing them in the places Gérôme specified. Soon after he left however, Gérôme immediately began moving everything. His mind was aflame with compositions waiting to come to life. But he would have to wait to paint until ......