I first ran across the term in the book Artistes Pompiers by James Harding (Rizzoli, 1979). Mr. Harding associates “pompier” with the excesses of academic painting.
Art that is “pompier” is like a noisy parade of firemen. It is brash, tacky, gaudy, extravagant, melodramatic, and overblown. Hey! That’s everything I love!
I asked Odile S. Chilton, Visiting Professor of French at Bard College, to explain the sources and connotations of the word further.
“One possible origin of the expression might come from the poet T. de Banville as he described some of David's paintings depicting scenes from Antiquity (perhaps, the battle of Thermopilae). Those scenes were full of characters wearing shiny helmets, hence the (unkind) reference to firemen: "Look they are naked! No, actually they are taking their helmets off, perhaps they are firemen going to bed..." Another origin might also be linguistic, ie a pun on the words: pompe, pompeux = pomposity, pompous.
"It is interesting to me since when I show biblical art to children, they invariably prefer that type of painting to others. For example “The Finding of Moses” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a huge hit!"
Thank you, Dr. Chilton. Artists, in order of appearance: Makart, Cabanel, Solomon, David, Alma-Tadema. Professor Chilton’s references come from Le Trésor de la langue française informatisé, an online version of the French equivalent of the OED.
Tomorrow: Painting as Magic