The Snake Charmer  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Snake Charmer is an oil-on-canvas Orientalist painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme produced around 1879. It is signed "J.L Gerome 1880".



The painting depicts a naked boy standing on a small carpet in the centre of a room with blue tiled walls, facing away from the viewer, holding a python which coils around his waist and over his shoulder, while an older man sits to his right playing a fipple flute. The performance is watched by a motley group of armed men from a variety of Islamic tribes, with different clothes and weapons.

The work measures 33|xx|48|in|cm. It is a highly finished academic painting, with a synthesis of Egyptian, Turkish, and Indian elements creating a voyeuristic fantasy for Western audiences. Adult snake charmers didn't perform naked since Islam prohibits that, but children did, in order to create more suspense in the spectator: seeing a poisonous snake held by an unprotected, stark naked boy was more thrilling than seeing it held by a strong, clothed man. Also, child nudity was highly accepted.

Gérôme made the painting on a visit to Constantinople in 1875, and his observations informed details of the painting. The inscriptions on the walls cannot easily be read, but parts are in Arabic Calligraphy. Despite apparent errors in writing, one section in the larger text on top can be identified as a verse from the Koran (2:256) condemning coercion towards Islamic monotheism. The other inscriptions are a dedication to a sultan. The blue tiles are inspired by İznik panels in the Altinyol and Baghdad Kiosk of Topkapi palace.


The painting was sold by Gérôme to Goupil et Cie in 1880 and then to US collector Albert Spencer. It was sold to Alfred Corning Clark in 1888 and inherited by his wife Elizabeth Scriven Clark in 1896. It was sold to Schaus Art Galleries, but reacquired by Clark's son Robert Sterling Clark and his wife Francine Clark in 1942 for $500. It is now held by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts.


The painting was used as the front cover of Edward Said's book Orientalism, in which he draws attention to the undercurrent of sensuality dressed up as academic interest. An article by Linda Nochlin, "The Imaginary Orient", in Art in America, (May 1983), pp. 118–131, pp. 187–191, points out that the seemingly photorealistic quality of the painting allows Gérôme to present an unrealistic scene as if it were a true representation of the east. Nochlin considers it better a representation of the West's colonial ideology.

The highly finished style of the painting has also been evaluated within the context of Gerome's resolute opposition to French Impressionism.

See also

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