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Mysteries of a Modern Painter

After an astute investigation, Chenique established that there had been two distinct commissions, one for 6,000 francs from the Ministry of the King’s Household, which the artist turned down, and another for only 2,400 francs awarded on January 12, 1820, from the Ministry of the Interior, for an altarpiece for the cathedral of Nantes, which Géricault asked Delacroix, seven years younger and always hard up for money, to paint. In the spring, Géricault himself asked for the size and planned height of the altarpiece and the direction from which light would come. He was also sent a sketch for the Neo-Gothic frame. Delacroix took a long time to paint it and was anxious about his money. Finally, in 1822, Géricault delivered the picture, asked the ministry for payment, and presumably passed it on, whether all or part we do not know, to Delacroix.

This story is interesting not only for what it tells about the relations between two great artists, but for the unusual glimpse it gives into the arcane workings of the arts administration. Géricault had to deliver the picture as his own. Yet it cannot have been a very close secret that he did not actually paint it. Had the picture been meant to hang in a public place in Paris rather than as church furnishing in a distant province, Géricault would surely not have acted as he did. Still one would like to know how unusual such a transaction was, and to what extent it was part of Géricault’s unconventional behavior.

One should not, however, try to reduce this puzzling artist to a left-wing stereotype. This is made clear by his willingness to enroll in the King’s Musketeers at the time of the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1814 and to follow the king on his flight to Belgium after Napoleon’s return from Elba in 1815. He did not, as some others did, stay at the king’s side after the guard had been officially disbanded, but he rejoined the Musketeers after Waterloo and only resigned in the fall of 1815. After basic training, his service may not have taken very much of his time, and Eitner is right that he could have gone on with his artistic work between the spring of 1814 and September 1815; but his enrollment shows his allegiance to the monarchy, just as his purchase of a replacement to serve in the army when he was drafted in 1811 suggests at the very least a lack of enthusiasm for the Napoleonic wars. Lamartine and Vigny also enrolled in the Musketeers; the young Romantics at that time were royalists and only turned to the left later on.

Géricault, however, must have quickly been put off by the ultras of the extreme right, and there is no question that choosing the incident of the Medusa as the subject of a major exhibition picture was not only unusual but politically subversive. The painter’s close friends at the Rue des Martyrs, including Louis Bro, who owned the house in which he lived, Horace Vernet, whose studio was close enough to be reached through back gardens, and the circle around these men were all staunch Bonapartists. But Géricault also had good friends among royalists. His political position is not easy to define; increasingly he seemed to become more concerned with social injustice and the suffering of its victims than with politics as such.

The circumstances of Géricault’s life are not in the least peripheral issues because one of the most striking aspects of his art is that it deals largely with the world he lived in. He made many copies of the Italian masters but mythology and ancient history are relatively rare in his own pictures, and except for copies of religious pictures by Titian and others, he drew almost no religious images. Nor was Géricault prepared to be a modest genre painter like Boilly, whose charming scenes of daily life were so popular. He clearly wanted to compete with such artists as David, and to become a master of “history painting” as it was then called. Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio are the masters that this largely self-taught artist wanted to learn from. Instead of attempting an imaginative recreation of the past as his predecessors had done, however, he was able to bring the power, the drama, the ethical weight of the grand tradition to contemporary images of the people and events that surrounded him.

He was also different in that he did not paint on commission. His three large exhibition paintings were done entirely on his own initiative, not only uncommissioned but unsalable. He published remarkable lithographs, his only public works after 1819, which deserve closer study than they have had. But most of the time he seems simply to have painted and drawn for himself, and occasionally for friends. That his work serves no purpose but to express the artist’s feelings and ideas is characteristically Romantic and modern.

In the absence of information about Géricault many anecdotes circulated about him are spurious although revealing about the impact of his pictures. The life of an artist is supposed to make his art more understandable, but in the case of Géricault, the pictures have often caused biographical details to be fabricated. The three huge heroic landscapes shown together in New York in 1990, and again in the Paris exhibition provide an example.3 When two of them were sold in 1903 it was said that Géricault had painted them for a friend, M. Marceau, to decorate his house at Villers-Cotterêts.

Recent research has shown this to be false, but why was the story made up in the first place? The somber paintings are disturbing in themselves—one shows the limbs of executed criminals hanging from a pole—and they seem very disconcerting when considered along with the artist’s other work. The reassuring tale of a commission for a specific house makes them appear more normal, just as the current interpretation that the landscapes are part of a set showing the different times of day (morning, noon, and evening, with one—night—missing, either never painted or lost) arbitrarily makes them conform to an established formula. As we shall see later, the “Portraits of the Insane” were provided with a similarly comforting story.4 Géricault’s works persistently challenge received ideas of what a picture should be and do. But along with the constant effort to tame what is threatening about them by fabricating anecdotes, there is also a recent tendency to recover their strangeness instead of glossing over it, and to allow his art to be as disquieting as it can be.

This was decidedly the case with the superb exhibition at the Grand Palais, the most comprehensive ever held. It took a strong stand on the nature of his art and gave a cogent view of Géricault as an innovator and even a thinker. The single volume of the two-volume catalog that has appeared so far has illustrations (of good quality), biographical material assembled by Bruno Chenique, technical entries written by Sylvain Laveissière, co-organizer of the exhibition, and brief, sometimes provocative introductions by Régis Michel to each section of the exhibition. One has to wait for the second volume to assess his argument, but it is not premature to say that the show itself and its catalog will mark a new stage in our understanding of a great artist.

The responsibility for the show was given to younger scholars who had not formerly been Géricault specialists. This was a good idea because they came to it with a fresh eye and without prejudice in a field filled with disagreement. The exhibition stressed the most inventive and extreme works of the artist, his fascination with violence, crime, punishment, and suffering. But it also revealed his sensuality with a stunning series of the voluptuous antique fantasies that he apparently drew during his stay in Italy. A small piece of sculpture represents a satyr making love to a nymph with Michelangelesque bluntness and physicality. These explicit images of sex are at once violent and ecstatic but they are not illicit, intended to be hidden like the pornographic works of Fuseli and other “serious” artists. Even Géricault’s famous picture of severed limbs, gruesome as it is, draws on classical models, and is also strangely sensuous. Géricault does not reject the classical, only the academic; in his drawings of the murder of a man called Fualdès, a sordid crime that took place in the southern town of Rodez, he transforms the local thugs into Greek athletes.

The installation at the Grand Palais was dramatic. The works were grouped according to themes, but they maintained a roughly chronological order (not unlike Bazin’s organization, but it makes more sense for an exhibition than for a catalogue raisonné). One started by seeing the painter’s academic nudes and an impressive group of his copies after the old masters. But the main accent of the lower floor was the Charging Chasseur exhibited at the Salon of 1812 when Géricault was twenty-one years old. Around it were grouped a number of his studies of horses, for which Géricault had a devouring passion, an obsession. The most surprising of these pictures is perhaps The Rumps, a painting famous through reproduction, but not shown in public since 1937. We see, arranged on three tiers, the rear ends of twenty-four horses, each with its own distinctive character, with a twenty-fifth in front view for good measure. At first one might think that these are horses lined up in a stable, but on closer view, one sees that fragmentary studies have simply been juxtaposed. The front part of the animal is often not hidden, but has not been painted—with weird effect.

At the same time, during the last years of the empire, Géricault painted many images of military life. The most extraordinary of these must be the large canvas in Munich, Artillery Train, a somber picture of horsedrawn cannons painted with astounding freedom and violence in which the soldiers on the left look as though they were ablaze. Most surprising is the amorphous, desolate space, strangely reminiscent of Goya.

Géricault’s Italian period, from 1816 to 1817, culminates in studies of a riderless horse race, a picturesque street festival that the artist witnessed in Rome during the Carnival of 1817. He never executed the monumental canvas he had apparently planned (a most unexpected project indeed), but he made several striking studies of different moments of the race, some represented directly, some transformed into an ancient classical vision. These pictures, now dispersed throughout the world, were brought together in the Grand Palais; it gave one a chance to see how the successive studies do not supersede one another as the steps toward a final version, but complement one another as contrasting visions that resisted synthesis.

A room of portraits showed an aspect of Géricault that has been neglected. Not for the most part a portraitist in the conventional sense, he nonetheless painted portraits of the children of friends that are among his most striking works, although they are not to everyone’s taste. The most important (not in the exhibition) shows, in a country landscape, Alfred Dedreux and his sister Elisabeth, the children of an architect friend. Géricault has hugely enlarged their heads; the little girl stands fiercely confronting the viewer while her brother sits rather coyly in a strange reversal of roles (in a preliminary drawing she sits lower and looks up to him in a more traditional way, and the proportions of head to body are also correctly observed). Although this disturbing image of the mystery and power of childhood, a central theme of Romanticism, was absent from the exhibition, one could see the same mood in the portrait of Louise Vernet, the daughter of Horace, also oddly enlarged, with a huge cat on her lap, staring past the viewer, while her dress has slipped off her shoulder and is pulled up just above her knee—an image of prepubescent sexuality that irresistibly recalls the work of Balthus.

  1. 3

    For full details about these pictures, see Gary Tinterow, Géricault’s Heroic Landscapes. This is the catalog of a small exhibition organized to celebrate the acquisition of one of the landscapes by the Metropolitan.

  2. 4

    Another biographical embellishment concerns The Raft. It has always been accepted as fact that Géricault added a figure at the lower right of his painting at the very last moment. The picture had been taken out of the studio and stored at the Italian Theater. There, Clément tells us, Géricault realized that the right corner was empty and brushed in an additional figure with amazing rapidity. Recently taken X-rays show that the figure was painted with the rest. Why this story? The two painted sketches of the final composition (both in the Louvre, both in the exhibition) do not have the figure in question. It is most unusual to make such a drastic change without careful preparation and a further sketch. The desire to account for this oddity and also perhaps the fact that the lower right figure “sticks out” of the composition have stimulated the biographical fantasy. In the sketches, in fact, the less conspicuous leftmost figure is also missing and Eitner has Géricault improvising both figures at the last moment, although he refers to Clément as his source. It seems that Eitner’s closer scholarly attention produced yet another fantasy.

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