• ill. 1. Théodore Géricault, Torse d’homme de profil, le bras droit levé, 1812. Huile sur toile, 102 x 82 cm. Collection particulière.

    ill. 2. Théodore Géricault, Un naufrage, étude d’homme nu, vers 1817-1818. Huile sur toile, 72,7 x 92 cm. Londres, The National Gallery.

    ill. 3. Théodore Géricault, Étude de torse d’homme, reproduit dans Beaux-Arts. Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, n° 4, 20 avril 1930, p. 17, comme attribué à Amable Louis Claude Pagnest.

Recently rediscovered by Bruno Chenique, this Study of a Male Torso is a notable addition to the Géricault œuvre. It adds to the constantly changing corpus of his male nudes and documents a brief phase in his artistic maturation, when he was beginning to paint from life in Pierre Guérin’s atelier.

At the beginning of 1810 a number of young artists found in Guérin’s newly opened atelier an alternative to the ruling, overcrowded establishments of David and Regnault. Guérin’s respectable education and political discretion were reassuring for families keen to spare their sons the plebeian disorder at work in David’s atelier, then leader of the French school; moreover, the youthful Guérin’s recent triumph at the Salon brought with it the promise of a sound training. Son of an upper middle class family from Rouen, in February 1811 Géricault became one of the first to be accepted at the École des beaux-arts on Guérin’s recommendation, and was quickly recognised as the most gifted of the latter’s protégés. Initially Géricault had put all his fiery temperament into edgily schematic, antiquity-inspired sketches and the constant practice of studies from life that was the main strand of the Guérin method. But while following the guidance of his teacher, he was also studying the greats of all schools at the Musée Napoléon – as the Louvre was then called – and producing more or less freely sketched copies.1 It was this process of self-education – indirectly encouraged by Guérin, who sought to avoid turning out imitators by not providing his own pictures as examples – that introduced a new permissiveness into the “ideal beauty” aesthetic Guérin himself intended to preserve. Indeed, the painterly resources that Géricault and his fellow students were discovering at the Louvre would infect the very academic principles Guérin was out to revivify; and Géricault’s unreflecting progressivism, together with his mounting influence on his comrades, would ultimately lead to the blossoming of Romantic painting.

The painted male nudes can be seen as the workshop for this emancipation process. Their chronology, from the conscientious yet masterly Male Torso in Profile, Right Arm Raised – probably his entry in the École des beaux-arts painting competition in 1812 (ill. 1) – to the nudes dating from his return from Italy around 1816-1817 (ill. 2), display a clear shift from anatomical precision to sculptural expressiveness, with the influence of Michelangelo overmastering that of Guérin and transforming mere studies into thoroughgoing works of art. The barbed comment attributed to Guérin by a contemporary sums up perfectly the culmination of this kind of process: “Your male nudes,” he said to Géricault, “resemble nature the way a violin case resembles a violin.”2 However, the Study of a Torso comes earlier, and has a place apart in that it involves not a completed picture but an unfinished sketch on paper.

The artist’s post-mortem inventory lists numerous male nude studies, but of the fifteen that have come down to us (including those for major compositions) none so eloquently displays the painter’s early manner as described by his biographer Charles Clément: “He used colour then more than he did later. He loved the fresh, pink tones of the great painter of Antwerp. Because he used impasto extensively his comrades called him the ‘Antwerp patissier’. And in the variant coined by Isabey père he became ‘Rubens’s cook’.”3 As Clément so astutely points out, this way of painting skin tones, so perfectly illustrated by the luminous impasto of the Study of a Male Torso, is the logical outcome of Géricault’s attentiveness to the old masters: “Also to be found in the collections are a large number of the studies from life which Géricault did during his time in Guérin’s atelier. Like his copies of the masters, they are for the most part of a great beauty shot through with energy and candour; their execution is skilled, generous and highly personal; and they have the rich, puissant colour of which he possessed the secret from the outset. These are only what you might call school exercises, but they bear his unmistakable stamp.”4

Clément’s reference to the number of these studies indicates the extent of the gaps in this part of the Géricault catalogue. Our small oil on paper mounted on card is thus all the more precious, and the harm it may have suffered in the course of the years suggests just how the trace of many others may have been lost. In 1930 Louis Dimier reproduced a Study of a Torso (ill. 3), sold on 20 February of that year as being by Géricault: “Here is a small, extremely beautiful male torso which I saw at the Manzi sale in 1919, where it went for 3000 francs. It was well worth that. This time it went for 500, for lack of collectors sufficiently bent on grasping its excellence. Auctioneer Couturier sold it as Lot no. 7 on 20 February. It was attributed to Géricault, but is certainly not by him. I once tried to track down the artist, and settled for Pagnest on the basis of a signed male nude of very similar execution that I came across at the home of the late Mr Alexis Godillot. Regardless of who painted it, it is a beautiful work and worthy of our respect.”5 Although the composition exactly matches that of our sketch, the work presents several notable differences. Firstly, technical: it is described as an oil on canvas and is markedly larger (47 x 40 cm instead of 40 x 29.5 cm). Secondly, the forms: the right arm and forearm are partially modelled, but the right hip is not; the breeze ruffling the hair is not blowing in the same direction; and the light grey ground modifies the values considerably. Bruno Chenique6 has deduced from a comparison of the two images that they are in fact one and the same work, but that it has been subjected to alterations on two occasions: entirely retouched prior to its first sale in 1919, cropped for reasons unknown after the 1930 sale, then stripped of its retouchings. It is true that many works by Géricault have been denatured in this way, but while the historical sequence suggested by Bruno Chenique is plausible, there are no good reasons for dismissing the hypothesis that the Manzi collection Study of a Torso and our own are two distinct works.

What is certain, on the other hand, is that our work once belonged to art writer Philippe Burty (1830–1890), as the removal of the discoloured varnish revealed his mark lower left. A much respected collector, Burty was a contributor to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts since its founding in 1859, and counted many artists among his friends. It was Delacroix – whose post-mortem sale catalogue he published, as well as a volume of letters7 – who introduced him to the history of Guérin’s atelier, where the painter of The Massacre at Chios had begun his friendship with the creator of The Raft of the Medusa.

 

 

1. See Germain Bazin, Théodore Géricault. Étude critique, documents et catalogue raisonné, II: L’œuvre : période de formation (Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts, 1987), pp. 287–302.

2. Quoted by La Garenne, “Géricault (Jean-Louis-Théodore-André)”, Biographie Universelle, Ancienne et Moderne, Supplément, LXV (Paris: Michaud, 1838), pp. 296–297.

3. Charles Clément, Géricault. Étude biographique et critique avec le catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre du maître, 3rd edition (Paris: Didier et Cie, 1879), pp. 28–29.

4. Ibid., pp. 34–35. In an unpublished essay on the Study of a Male Torso, Bruno Chenique looks at the critical reception given Géricault’s male nudes as a whole.

5. Louis Dimier, “Tableaux qui passent”, Beaux-Arts. Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité, no. 4, 20 April 1930, p. 17, repr.

6. Bruno Chenique, “Un tableau de Théodore Géricault, Etude de torse d’homme”, unpublished, p. 20.

7. Philippe Burty (ed.), Lettres de Eugène Delacroix (1815 à 1863) (Paris: Carpentier, 1878), p. XVI.

 

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