To be able to view a group of drawings and small oils by an important artist who died so young is indeed a rare and special event. Jill Newhouse Gallery is pleased to continue its series of monographic exhibitions, begun in 1983, with this show of works by Théodore Géricault (1794-1824), the brilliant and tragic artist whose life and oeuvre has come to symbolize French Romanticism. Géricault drawings have not been exhibited in the United States since the Morgan Library show in 1985 and an exhibition of paintings held at the Metropolitan Museum in 1989.
In a career that barely spanned fifteen years, Géricault produced one of the most original bodies of art work of the 19th century. It is an oeuvre that continues to provoke interest and dispute, from basic issues of chronology, dating and attribution, to interpretations of the artists historical, political and aesthetic intentions. As Amy Kurlander has written in the introductory essay to the 100 page digital catalogue available on the gallery website:
“For many years following his death in 1824 at the age of 32, Gericault was a mythic, shadowy figure, an incomplete genius defined by one painting The Raft of the Medusa (1821) and by a passionate temperament (he had a disastrous love affair with his uncles young wife who bore his illegitimate son) and a protracted tragic illness.”
By the 21st century, after Lorenz Eitners and Phillipe Grunchecs important studies from the 1980s, a breathtaking retrospective in Paris in 1991, and other scholarly efforts, we have come to an understanding of both the breadth of Gericaults accomplishments in various media and his deep involvement in the world in which he lived. “Our” Gericault as Nina Athanassoglou Kallymer has written was a “man of his time,” responsive to the turbulent era that comprised the end of Napoleans regime and the early years of the contested Bourbon Restoration. In his challenges to various conventions that governed the genres of painting, Géricault is very much in the words of Henri Zerner a “harbinger of the modern spirit.”
Among Géricaults greatest contributions to both watercolor and lithography were his explorations of contemporary, working London, in which he extended his obsession with horses to include the working horses of Londons busy streets, wharves, and stables. The exhibitions watercolor study of a coal wagon, two sturdy drays and a coal heaver (cat. 14) and the graphite study of a furled worker leading a horse drawn cart (cat. 16) exemplify the stark naturalism of Géricaults depictions of working London; while other watercolors and drawings of this period (cat. 15, 17, 23) depict their subjects with a detached and observant air.
For much of his career, Géricault conceived and executed drawings for his own purposes; he enjoyed a private income, and was not urgently pressed to sell his work. From the English period of 1820 onwards however, the artist increasingly had his market and sales in mind. The initial impetus of the English journey had been to profit from an exhibition of the Raft of the Medusa in which the public would actually pay to view the painting. After this, he began to capitalize on the French fascination with English motifs and English style naturalism in two series of lithographs and a number of small paintings. His finished watercolors of English subjects were certainly marketable and are related to his very successful suites of lithographs of 1821 and 1823.
On view in this show will be 25 works from all periods of Géricaults brief career, beginning with an 1810 ink drawing of a seated male after a painting by his teacher Guerin (cat. 1), and continuing with precise graphite drawings inspired by classical motifs in preparation for large scale painted projects (cat. 6,8); early wash drawings of horses from his trip to Italy in 1816-17 (cat. 9,10); a study for the seminal painting 1818 The Raft of the Medusa (cat. 13); and several works in ink, pencil, and watercolor from the English period 1820-21 (cat. 17, 18, 21).
At Géricaults posthumous sale, the drawings were greatly appreciated and quickly found their way into the major private collections of the era; and only much later did they find their way into public collections. This show demonstrates the continued interest collectors have in Géricaults works.