An image came across my Tumblr dash the other day that immediately seized my imagination: Jean-Léon Gérôme’s La Verité sortant du puits (Truth Coming Out of Her Well), which is often more poetically referred to as La Verité sortant du puits armée de son martinet pour châtier humanité (Truth Coming Out of Her Well [Armed with a Martinet] to Shame Mankind), dated to 1896 and currently in the collection of the Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu. I’d never seen the painting before, in spite of a relatively good acquaintance with Gérôme’s work (I have a bashful love of Orientalist painting and studied him both as an undergrad and as a graduate student), and it struck a chord that is still resonating.
It’s not unusual to see allegorical paintings of Truth that depict her at or emerging from a well, particularly in the late-nineteenth century. Paul Baudry’s La Verité (1882, also in the collection of the Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu) features a Truth who sits placidly upon a well, while Edouard Debat-Ponsan’s La Verité sortant du puits (1898, Hôtel de Ville d’Amboise ) and Jules Arsène Garnier’s La Verité sortant du puits (ca. 1870s or 1880s) both portray the emergence of Truth from her well and the horrified reactions of the people around her. In Debat-Ponsan’s painting, two men physically restrain Truth in an attempt to force her back into the darkness. In Garnier’s work, men and women flee from the sight of her.
But Gérôme’s painting. There’s no one there but Truth. And you.
And she stares. Right into your eyes as if she’s coming for you. She is depicted half-in and half-out of her well, and she brandishes a martinet whip. Her long black hair pours down her back, her mouth hangs open in a silent shout or scream, and her eyes. Her eyes are fixed on you.
It’s an interpretation of Truth that moves the allegory beyond mere discomfort with the prospect of confronting truth and into the realm of horror. This is no supple beauty awaiting discovery or an arch mistress inviting you to brave the facts you’ve been staunchly ignoring; this is a woman scorned and coming for blood. Like Japan’s Okiku, who was accused of theft and thrown down a well by her master, and who rose from that depth every night to scream the truth of her murder to the heavens, this woman holds the key to an ugly, ugly truth.
It’s interesting to me, when I think of it, how many horror stories I’ve read that involve wells. Wailing Well by M.R. James, Wishing Well by Charles de Lint, Ringu by Suzuki Kōji. And in each of those cases, the well hides a dreadful truth—either one that must be confronted or one that should never be brought light. After all, people often think that truth is the best, and most honorable, course. (Tell the truth, they say, and shame the devil.) But it’s important not to confuse truth with honesty, for the reality is that truth can be a brutal thing, and there are dangers involved in looking it squarely in the face.
It delights me to imagine that Gérôme understood that reality; it delights me to no end.