Géricault. At the Heart of Romantic Creation

1. Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)
Study Head, 1818-1819
Oil on Canvas - 54 x 45 cm
Clermont-Ferrand, Musée d’Art Roger Quilliot
Photo : MARQ

Does a painting formerly attributed to a great artist stop being beautiful or even interesting when this acknowledgement is withdrawn ? The question might appear to be absurd but not really given the attitude of certain curators who rush to hide it away in storage, the name having taken precedence over the work itself. For just this reason, we should commend Bruno Chenique and the current curating team at the Musée d’Art Roger-Quillot for having brought back to light a canvas (ill. 1) once given to Géricault, then withheld and immediately taken from public viewing, as if a work should be concealed because it is anonymous.

This head of a man has thus resurfaced, attributed with no reservations by the exhibition curator to Théodore Géricault. This is obviously his right as an art historian and specialist of the artist who, as he says in the introductory essay (Questions de méthode), can (and should according to him) "pronounce himself clearly[...] and assert loudly and clearly : "yes, for me, this is indeed an authentic canvas by the master". Therefore, this exhibition does not present any indications of "attributed to", a term he considers as overly cautious. Further on, we read that "the number of years [spent studying the artist] is not always enough to achieve [this] "truth" [of attribution] or, at least, achieve a certain form of certainty and, finally, the adherence of the art history community." Quite clearly, and also very fortunately, Bruno Cherique seems to have evolved in his conviction that establishing daily contact with an artist for several decades is the only way for an art historian to pronounce an opinion concerning a canvas, making him (almost) the only one, legitimately qualified to attribute (or not) a painting to Géricault.

However, we are not here to discuss the attribution of this "new" painting nor others in the exhibition although they are not all at times necessarily "obvious". This is a very complex exercice : I made the visit with a friend who is an art historian, particularly well acquainted with the artist’s work, and who was readily convinced by all these new proposals, including two sketches of the Radeau de la Méduse (one, a partial study, in a private collection ; the other from the Musée d’Angers), while I myself remained dubious.
We might wonder though why the painting from the museum in Auvergne is necessarily preparatory for the Radeau when in fact there is nothing connecting it to the composition, except for the model which might be the same one as the man on the extreme left of the painting at the Louvre, and the two hands of the black man gripping his shoulders (but were black figures to be found only on the Méduse ?).

2. Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)
Study for the Radeau de la Méduse, 1818-1819
Oil on Paper - 23.5 x 34 cm
Paris, Private Collection
Photo : Lumière Technology

3. Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)
L’Argu on the Horizon.
Study for the Radeau de la Méduse
, 1818-1819
Pen and Brown Ink - 24.5 x 30.2 cm
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : RMNGP/P. Bernard

On reflection though, do these debates on attribution really matter ? The most important issue here is the quality of the exhibition which is remarkably didactic and offers an intelligent hang, abounding with little-known, even unpublished, works, which allow us to understand the inception of the Radeau de la Méduse (which quite obviously could not make the trip here) as well as the manner in which the artist worked.
Of the studies on view, we especially admired this one, unpublished until now, and held in a private collection (ill. 2). Several magnificent drawings for the overall composition, notably those from Lille and Rouen (ill. 3) and studies of isolated figures round out an already abundant ensemble but which we regret does not include the gouache recently acquired by the Musée du Louvre (see news item of 9/12/04 in French).

Another section is devoted to studies of isolated figures which, though not directly preparatory for the persons on the Radeau, show significant similarities. Here again, several recently attributed works are proposed ; among these, we should point out, from a private collection, a beautiful Portrait of a Castaway, very close to the one in Besançon and a drawing representing an Oriental Head and Study of a Right Leg.
The exhibition goes on to take a look at anatomic fragments, heads and limbs which Géricault represented multiple times in order to achieve the reality of the cadavers inserted in his large painting. Again, one or two works are given without reservation to Géricault despite having resurfaced not long ago or having been brought into doubt in recent articles.

4. Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)
The Artist’s Left Hand, 1823
Black Pencil, Red Chalk Wash, Blue Pencil - 23 x 29.7 cm
Paris, Private Collection
Photo : RMNGP

We conclude our visit with at least two masterpieces of French drawing, studies of hands, more precisely the artist’s left hand, both belonging to a Parisian private collection (ill. 4) and close to those at the Louvre. Significantly weakened by the ailment ultimately responsible for his death, Géricault, bedridden, drew what he could see close by. These works are both remarkable and extremely moving, especially when we see the emaciated mask produced at the moment he died.

This is not the first time we have praised the technique of multispecter digitization elaborated by the firm Lumière Technology. Many of the works in this exhibition benefited from its application and it is too bad that the catalogue does not mention it. This is above all a tool - and what a tool ! - which allows us to better understand the paintings and the manner in which they were produced. It can also provide solid arguments for certain attributions and we find it unfortunate that it was not used more extensively here.
However, the texts in the catalogue are fascinating. The lack of entries is not really a drawback as the sections are clearly defined by genre, each explicitly presented by a short essay.
Sidonie Lemeux-Fraitot and Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau each wrote respectively two chapters, one on the question of the "study head", the other on Géricault’s fascination with Michelangelo. However, Bruno Cherique is the main author of this book with several very remarkable studies including a chronological (and very instructive) in-depth look at the reception of the Radeau de la Méduse after the death of the artist.
Should we comment on the fact that the author repeats some of his comments on certain old biographers in an article entirely devoted to Clément, as if he had not already said it all before ? Then again, the fact that a Géricault specialist holds certain fixations is, after all, almost reassuring.

Curators : Bruno Cherique and Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau.

Under the guidance of Bruno Cherique, Géricault, au coeur de la création romantique. Etudes pour Le Radeau de la Méduse, 2012, Nicolas Chaudun, 286 p., 32.50€. ISBN : 9782350391342.

Visitor information : Musée d’Art Roger-Quillot, Quartier historique de Montferrand, Place Louis-Deteix, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand. Tel : 00 33 (0)4 73 16 11 30. Open from Tuesday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 10 am to 12 noon and 1 pm to 6 pm. Admission : 5€ (reduced : 3€).

Version française

Didier Rykner, jeudi 5 juillet 2012

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