The Naked Truth

Last week one of my friends forwarded me an “old poem” about the Lie and the Truth, taking a bath together. The Lie runs away with the clothes of the Truth, leaving her naked. The poem was supposed to be written by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1896. A quick Google search showed that Gérôme was actually a French painter who had, in 1896, created a painting Truth coming from the well armed with her whip to chastise mankind. But he didn’t write the poem, as I replied to my friend. Here are the WhatsApp messages.

I decided to write a blog about the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, the Naked Truth and the Well.

Gérôme lived from 1824 until 1904. In 1840, 16 year old, he moved to Paris where he got his training in what often is called Academic Art, because it was taught in the art academies of Europe, especially the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1846 he painted The Cockfight which won him a prize and launched his career.

He became one of the most officially honored and financially successful French artists of the second half of the 19th century. Subjects from Roman and Greek antiquity, but also from the Middle-East where he traveled extensively. His paintings are pleasing to the eye, no wonder that they were sold easily. As a result they can be found all over the world, often in private collections. Here are a few of his paintings to give an impression.

Even today you can buy copies of his paintings, here is a website that has copies of 234 (!) Gérôme paintings for sale. Click on the screenshot to view the website. Interested in your own copy of Truth coming from the Well? You can order it in 14 different formats, from 18″ x 24″ ($259) to 80″ x 104″ ($898) , frame not included.

At the end of his life he became a very vocal opponent of the upcoming impressionist school of painting. Interest in the “sterile”, “academic” style of painting faded but came back in the second half of the 20th century. The Gare d’Orsay museum in Paris is dedicated to 19th century art and one of my favourites. In 2010 the museum organised a retrospective exhibition The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme which I would have liked to see.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the story about Truth and Lie taking a bath is fake, a fabrication. But why is Truth coming out of her well? Gerome created several paintings about it. In two of the paintings she is also holding a mirror.

In Roman mythology Veritas (Truth) was a goddess, the daughter of Saturn. From the Wikipedia article Veritas : “The elusive goddess is said to have hidden in the bottom of a holy well” and “She is depicted both as a virgin dressed in white and as the “naked truth” (nuda veritas) holding a hand mirror

The expression :naked truth” can be found in Ode 1.24 by Horatius, the famous Roman poet (65-8 BC). According to the Greek philosopher Demokritos (c. 460 – c. 370 BC), knowledge of truth is difficult, since perception through our senses is subjective. In reality we know nothing, for truth is in the depths. No mention of a (holy) well. I have not been able to find any depiction of Veritas in Roman/Greek antiquity on the Internet.

Fortunately I found this webpage: Painting Truth: When did she emerge from a well? The page is part of a fascinating website , created and maintained by Howard Oakley, a developer of Mac software with a huge interest in paintings. The page is so well written and complete, that I will only summarize the content here.

At the end of the 19th century “Truth climbing from a Well” suddenly became a popular subject for painting. It has been suggested that this was related to the infamous Dreyfus affair, where the army officer Dreyfus was falsely accused (and convicted) of treason. But Oakley shows that the interest started earlier already. In fact , he found that the earliest painting with Truth and a Well dates back to the 16th century, about the same period that the expression “the naked truth” got used in the way we still do nowadays. Here is that painting, An Allegory of Truth and Time, by Carracci (1560-1609).

Oakley has written many more pages about Gérôme : Too real: the narrative paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme .All of them are worth reading, as are the numerous pages about other art topics.

To summarise this post, Truth and the abyss where she resides had a philosophical background, and nothing to do with a (holy) well, from where she emerges. I have found nothing about a naked truth in antiquity except the reference by Horatius. It is only in Western art that the topic appears in the 16th century, culminating at the end of the 19th century. There is sometimes a mirror, but never a bathing encounter with Falsehood stealing her clothes 😉

When you Google for truth, lie, bath, you get quite a few hits. Often it is a 19th century legend, or a Roman fable. Sometimes Truth and Lie are twin brothers, swimming a river.

1 thought on “The Naked Truth

  1. Thanx Jan, such a nice and interesting post! The truth, naked or not, depends on our perception. If we were only more aware, and most importantly would be able to endure the uncertainty in this world that is so polarized.

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