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The Art of JAMA
April 2, 2014

On the Desert: Jean-Léon Gérôme

JAMA. 2014;311(13):1276-1277. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.279418

The greyhounds in the foreground of On the Desert, by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), may be an allusion to the sharp-eared, leggy dogs found on the walls of Egyptian tombs, but their main contribution to this painting is their aerodynamic form. Greyhounds are built for speed and look the part. In the 1860s, when this painting was made, they were bred to hunt rabbits for sport. This pair is held in reserve while others search for game, as indicated in the painting’s alternative title, A Relay of Hounds in the Desert. The dogs face downwind, scanning the landscape. Since they hunt as a team, the handler can control them by restraining the male. To the right of the handler, a powdery sand dune remodels in the khamsin, a hot wind that blows sporadically for 50 days. The shape-shifting of the dune and the flapping headdress of the handler mark the strength and direction of the breeze, a physical presence that cannot be seen.