Snake Charmer

Painted with minute precision based in part on actual places—Istanbul’s Topkapı palace inspired the tiled wall, while the stone floor resembles that of the mosque of Amr in Cairo— this scene presents a European fantasy of life in the Islamic world. The assembled men, whose garments and weapons are derived from a combination of cultures, appear dazed as they watch a snake charmer. Their gaze upon the boy’s naked body calls attention to our own. This type of painting, referred to as Orientalist, reflected and shaped European prejudices about the world beyond its borders.


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.

Jean-Léon Gérôme

French, 1824–1904

Snake Charmer

c. 1879

Oil on canvas

32 3/8 x 47 5/8 in. (82.2 x 121 cm) Frame: 41 × 56 × 4 1/4 in. (104.1 × 142.2 × 10.8 cm)

Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1942