Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 22, 1999
Wheelock Whitney Géricault in Italy New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. 222 pp.; 45 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300068034)
Thumbnail

In the autumn of 1816 the twenty-five year old Gericault set off for Italy, where he spent the next year in Rome—except for an initial month in Florence and a two-month excursion to Naples in the spring of 1817. In this abundantly illustrated monograph, Wheelock Whitney explores the Italian journey in the context of Gericault’s short career, and shows that this least studied period of Gericault’s work was a crucial stage—the year in which the artist “came of age” (1).

The significance of the Italian visit has long been debated. His earliest nineteenth-century biographers generally dismissed the year abroad as overshadowed by consuming personal and artistic crises, which eventually prompted his impetuous return to France. The first positive account dates from Charles Clement’s pioneering monograph of 1867. While revealing Gericault’s motive for leaving France as an escape from a “potentially scandalous love affair,” he also stressed Gericault’s desire to study the art of Italy, and devoted an important chapter to Gericault’s Italian works.

Although much has come to light since Clement, his researches remain the starting point for most later accounts. Whitney is no exception. He discusses the personal reasons for Gericault’s departure (now known to be an ardent but illicit love affair with a young aunt by marriage) and Gericault’s decision to travel independently to Italy after his failure to win the Prix de Rome as the traditional pilgrimage to Italy expected of every young French artist. However, he argues further that the visit was particularly relevant to Gericault’s current stylistic preoccupations—the next logical step in his artistic development, and he sets out to show how Gericault returned to France “a very different artist from the one who had set out for Italy almost exactly one year before” (199), having discovered “a whole range of new subject matter and achieved full technical mastery of his art” (197).

Whitney’s interest in Gericault’s Italian trip originated in a doctoral thesis some twenty years ago, which has given him ample opportunity to take full advantage of the considerable advances in Gericault studies since then. While acknowledging Clement as the bedrock of Gericault scholarship, Whitney also resolutely follows the approach and authoritative researches of Lorenz Eitner—with occasional minor disagreements. Whitney cites most of the published literature relating to Gericault’s Italian visit, and spars in text and footnotes on a wide range of issues. He has, however, chosen to abjure recent challenges to traditional art-historical methods and boundaries that have attempted to expand Gericault studies to wider investigation. Instead, Whitney focuses firmly on Gericault’s life, his works, and his construed artistic intentions. He suggests that Gericault’s year in Italy not only effectively removed the young artist from his immediate personal anguish, but also detached him from the immediate political and artistic pressures in contemporary France—"the oppressive sociohistorical context of early nineteenth century France" (201). Thus unencumbered, Gericault could concentrate on formal matters of technique and composition, and on combining lessons from Classical and Renaissance art with his depictions of modern Italy—forging what Whitney terms Gericault’s own “hybrid form of neo-classicism” (63).

Whitney’s first chapter, titled ‘“A Year Well Spent”’ (an unidentified phrase from a letter by Gericault to a young artist) sets the artistic and social scene of Gericault’s sojourn. Refuting the notion that Gericault led a solitary life, ostracized by the official artistic establishment, Whitney assembles the various artists with whom Gericault was probably in contact and provides a fuller account than hitherto about the local and expatriate artistic community in Florence, Rome, and Naples, and the current pensionnaires at the French Academy. The evidence ranges from reliable official documents to nineteenth-century anecdotal accounts, which, even if unverifiable, contribute lively snippets to Gericault’s posthumous biographical fortunes.

Whitney gives special significance to Gericault’s excursion to Naples (particularly in relation to the later compositional stages of the Race of the Riderless Horses). The scarce documentation of this important episode has recently been augmented by an archival discovery published since Whitney’s book: a letter, dated April 21, 1817, from the Secretary to the Minister of the Interior in Rome to the Director of the Royal Borbonico Museum in Naples, requesting permission for Gericault to make drawings of Pompeian antiquities and in the Royal Borbonica museum. Also of interest are two similar letters, written on the same day, which suggest that Gericault may have been accompanied by two pensionnaires from Villa Medici—Louis-Nicola Destouches (1789-1850), an architect whose wife sat for Ingres, and the painter Auguste-Jean-Baptiste Vinchon (1789-1855), whose portrait by Gericault has already been identified in Zurich sketchbook. (See Marc Fehlman, “Gericault en Italie: encore des dates, encore des noms,” La Méduse, No. 5, April 1998, pp. 1, 3.)

Whitney organizes Gericault’s disparate Italian works into four chapters: “Studying the Masters,” “Everyday Life Observed,” “The Race of the Barberi Horses,” and “The Loves of the Gods.” In “Studying the Masters,” Whitney offers suggestions for Gericault’s “broader, easier drawing style” (29) and explores Gericault’s various surviving drawn and painted copies after earlier art as a search for artistic identity. Whitney gives a special role to the adduced “solemn, timeless qualities of the art of antiquity and the High Renaissance” (43) in Gericault’s attempts to elevate (or “distill”) scenes of everyday life to “quasi-heroic” status—a frequently reiterated formulation of Gericault’s main intention.

The chapter on Gericault’s various projects inspired by contemporary Italian life includes an interesting iconographical analysis of the painting known as the Italian Family (Stuttgart). Preparatory drawings, a nineteenth-century catalogue entry, iconographic sources are mustered to impute an allegorical and symbolic meaning to this apparently genre scene. Despite addressing Gericault’s thematic concerns and search for subject matter, Whitney’s analysis of works is primarily in stylistic terms. He scrutinizes technical procedures, judges quality, explores preparatory works, and attempts to track compositional developments as a series of formal decisions. This occasionally leads to ambitious attempts to read Gericault’s mind, describe his inferred feelings (conscious and unconscious), reveal his presumed artistic intentions, and generally construe his responses to life and art.

The most extended account of Gericault’s gradually unfolding intentions concerns Gericault’s major unfinished project, the Race of the Riderless Horses. Whitney gives a lively historical account of the circumstances of the actual race, and then, despite several missing works, painstakingly attempts to plot the familiar transformation of inspiration from “observed reality” (76) into a “timeless and idealized world for which antiquity was the most logical inspiration” (142).

The stylistic analysis is painstaking, with even the slightest drawing subjected to careful scrutiny and dissection, and occasionally mired in such somewhat stilted language as: “In order to interrupt the visual regularity of his figures’ progress across the composition, Gericault contrived to cause certain elements to be plunged into shade, thereby providing a vivid contrast to the brightly lit areas of the image” (152). Whitney is here explaining the “quirks and weaknesses” (151) of the final Louvre version, which he sees as a reaction against the “stiff regularity” and “compositional and psychological gridlock” (146) of the previous drawing.

In dealing with the abandonment of the project, Whitney assumes that the Riderless Horses was supplanted by another thematic preoccupation that culminated in a work executed after Gericault’s return to Paris—the Cattle Market (Fogg)—which he rates as “among the masterworks inspired by the Italian sojourn” (83). He compares these two paintings as alternative depictions of conflict between man and beast, both set in “a dreamlike limbo somewhere between the gritty observed reality that initially inspired them and an exotic antiquity of Gericault’s own invention.” (155)—a comparison that is surely open to further interpretation.

Rated among “the undisputed glories of his brief career” (157) are the various drawings on classical, mythological and erotic themes discussed in “The Loves of the Gods.” Whitney points here to the new assurance and fluidity of touch in the informal sketches, and eloquently describes the highly finished chalk, wash, and gouache compositions in terms of elaborate technical procedures and artistic sources. He sees in these works a continued obsession with the antique, combined with an “equally strong passion for the natural world” (180)—by which Whitney mainly means skill in the “art of representation” and truthfulness to nature. Commenting on the prevalence of violent and sexual themes, Whitney cautiously speculates that this may reflect a “psychological struggle that was raging within him during this especially troubled period” (181).

Since some works discussed by Whitney are not firmly datable to his stay in Italy but in some way reflect the Italian experience, it is surprising that the three later monumental classical landscapes, The Times of Day are referred to only in passing as “the disturbing, joyless series of heroic landscapes” (198).

Whitney’s appreciative account of Gericault’s Italian visit may be viewed as a rearguard, if accomplished, counter to some of the recent approaches in Gericault studies; it is, however, a beautifully produced and thoroughly researched book on an artist whose work defies easy interpretation in any terms.

Frances Suzman Jowell
independent scholar, London

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.