Curator‘s Comments

This painting illustrates a legend explaining why the Lacus Curtius (Lake of Curtius) in the Roman Forum was venerated by ancient Romans. According to the Roman historian Livy, a chasm suddenly appeared in the middle of the Forum in 362 BCE. Soothsayers declared it could only be closed, and Rome’s empire preserved forever, by casting into it “Rome’s greatest treasure.” This was interpreted by the young soldier Marcus Curtius to mean the city’s brave youth. He sacrificed himself by leaping, fully armed and on horseback, into the chasm, which closed over him. While this subject also appears in earlier art, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s composition is bold, dynamic, and unusual. Gérôme shows Marcus Curtius on his terrified charger flying out of the picture and into our space, placing us in the abyss among the flames of Hades.

Jean-Léon Gérôme. French, 1824–1904

The Leap of Marcus Curtius, c. 1850-55

Oil on canvas

Purchased with the Beatrice Oenslager Chace, class of 1928, Fund

ID Number: SC 2010:7