A naked boy, accompanied by an elderly musician playing the flute, “charms” a snake. Although Gérôme could have witnessed such a performance during his travels in Egypt, this detailed, almost photographic image is an invention. A room in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace inspired the tiled wall, inscribed with Koranic verses, while the stone floor resembles one in a Cairo mosque. The spectators represent a range of ethnicities, wearing a mish-mash of clothing and weapons. Paintings of non-Western subjects, often with exotic or erotic undertones, were popular in nineteenth-century Europe and ensured Gérôme’s success.
The artist, sold to Goupil, 24 Aug. 1880; [Goupil, Paris, sold to Spencer, 5 Oct. 1880];¹ Albert Spencer, New York (1880–88, his sale, Fifth Avenue Art Galleries, New York, 28 Feb. 1888, no. 66, sold to Clark); Alfred Corning Clark, New York and Cooperstown (1888–d. 1896); Elizabeth Scriven Clark, his wife, by descent (1896–1899/1902, sold to Schaus Art Galleries);² [Schaus Art Galleries, New York, from 1899/1902]; August Heckscher, New York (d. 1941); Virginia Henry Curtiss Heckscher, New York, his wife, by descent (d. 1941, her sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 22 Jan. 1942, no. 86, sold to Durand-Ruel, as agent for Clark); Robert Sterling Clark (1942–55); Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1955.
1. Goupil Stock Books, vol. 10, p. 127, no. 14822. See also Gérôme & Goupil: Art and Enterprise, exh. cat., 2000–2001, pp. 19, 42.
2. The Snake Charmer is recorded as being on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark (Elizabeth Scriven Clark) by April 1897 until at least April 1898. See Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pictures by Old Masters . . . Loan Collections and Recent Gifts to the Museum . . . Henry G. Marquand Collection, 1897, p. 50, no. 173, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pictures by Old Masters . . . Loan Collections and Recent Gifts to the Museum . . . Henry G. Marquand Collection, 1897–98, p. 46, no. 173. In his diaries, Sterling Clark later recalled that this work was sold in partial exchange for Géricault’s Trumpeter of the Hussars (1955.949), commenting in 1944 that “my mother had turned [Snake Charmer] in to Schaus for $10,000 to $12,000 around 1899 as part payment for the “Trompette de Hussards” at $35,000” (RSC diary, 11 Nov. 1944). Unless it took place in two separate steps, however, this transaction could not have occurred in 1899, since Trumpeter of the Hussars was with its previous owner until 1902.