Rejecting the strict Classicism of the artistic establishment in France during the early years of the 19th century, Théodore Géricault became one of the pioneers of the French Romantic movement, leading an artistic revolution against the staid, controlled Neoclassical style and embracing a thoroughly more modern aesthetic in painting which would resonate with artists throughout the century. Géricault’s early paintings show the young artist, recently set out on his own, expressing the naissance of the new style in his own art. This vibrant sketch, produced when the artist was only in his mid-twenties, is a youthful tour-de-force demonstrating the young artist’s indebtedness to the Old Masters combined with a new-found tone and style, as well as a freedom that came from his direct experience of art and life.
Bruno Chenique dates this beautiful painting to 1817-1818 when Géricault was working in Italy or soon after his return to France. Géricault treated this subject several times, most famously in the celebrated watercolor in the Louvre (fig. 1) with its obvious echoes of a lost work by Michelangelo, which was copied several times by Peter Paul Rubens (fig. 2). The present painting is most likely the picture listed in the Alfred Mosselman sale in Paris in 1849, Leda (Esquisse). Mosselman’s sale included seven paintings by Géricault, four of which were acquired by the Louvre. Bazin indicates the only other mention of an oil of Leda and the Swan is described in the 19th century as being in the famous Marcille Collection, ‘Géricault – Léda et le Cygne, au bord d’un ruisseau entoure d’arbres mysterieux.- C’est une petite esquisse à l’huile, d’une superbe tournure et d’une vigoreuse couleur’ (C. Blanc, Gericault, Paris, 1845, p. 440). It is not clear if these works are one and the same.
It was in Italy that Géricault was overwhelmed by his initial encounter with the art of Michelangelo. His first impulse upon his arrival in the Eternal City was to run to the Sistine Chapel to admire the work of the Italian master, and it was also during his stay in Rome that he became fascinated by the myths of ancient Greece and Rome. Their erotic themes of rapes and abductions by centaurs and satyrs were food for the young man’s imagination. His albums of drawings from this period are filled with sketches of voluptuous or violent couplings. The myth of Leda and the Swan tells how Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduced the beautiful Leda, wife of King Tyndareus of Lacedaemon. Their union resulted in the two eggs which hatched the heavenly twins, Caster and Pollux, as well as Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. It is clear that Géricault was particularly fascinated by this tale and there is no doubt that it was the work of Michelangelo that inspired him to take up this subject matter. Bazin states that the young artist would have known of the lost Michelangelo painting after an engraving that he repeatedly copied (fig. 3). In addition to the two recorded oil sketches and the haunting watercolor in the Louvre, there are numerous pen and ink drawings in which he explores the same subject matter (fig. 4). Four drawings in pen and brown ink are at the Ecole nationale surperieur des Beaux Arts in Paris, one is in Alençon at the Musée des Beaux Arts et de la Dentelle, three are in private collections and one was identified as in London at Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox in 1997. The sheer number of preparatory drawings on the theme verifies the intense reflection that always preceded Géricault’s finished works. Leda is drawn either resisting or embracing her seducer or ultimately abandoning herself to him, as in the present sketch. These studies demonstrate Géricault’s genius and extraordinary working methods, by which he turns the ideas and images in his mind into either rapid or fully worked up sketches on paper. In all, he produced eleven known studies of the Leda subject. Lorenz Eitner writes of these Italian period studies, ‘The scenes are complete in themselves and do not form a sequence, but a current of sensuous excitement runs through them all. Voluptuous assaults, more in the nature of dance than rape, enlace the bodies in graceful arabesques. Aggressive males, half-human or wholly animal – shaggy satyr, centaur, bull and swan – act out their passions; the pliant or resisting nymphs, entirely human in their nakedness, easily dominate the melee. No trace of harshness remains’ (L. Eitner, Géricault, His Life and Work, 1983, p. 104).
Apart from the influence of Michelangelo, this sketch owes much to the artist’s youthful studies of other Old Masters. As a painter, he was essentially self-educated and it has been said that his true school was the Louvre. In the artist’s posthumous sale in 1824, more than sixty copies after the Old Masters were sold. Géricault was particularly drawn to the colorists such as Rubens and Veronese. The influence of Veronese is particularly evident in this work in his handling of the pink flesh tones, the golden curls of Leda’s hair, the swan’s foot resting on her thigh and the general atmosphere of extreme sensuality which were inspired by the Venetian master’s painting of the same subject (fig. 5). A particularly Rubensian touch is the painting of the lion skin upon which Leda is thrown. This could perhaps be a reference by Géricault to the Hercules myth and the slaying of the Nemean Lion, a subject for which Géricault was also producing drawings during this same period. It is also possible that it symbolizes the power of women both in myth and in reality. Hercules’ love Iole is often shown wearing his lion skin and Géricault is known to have confessed to a fellow artist, ‘quand je veut faire une femme, il se que c’est un lion’. It is interesting to note that Géricault’s guilt and anxiety over his affair with his beautiful young aunt, Alexandrine-Modeste Caruel, was another reason for his ‘escape’ to Italy.
This exquisite and unique work of art not only underlines Géricault’s debt to Michelangelo and Rubens, but also creates the foundation for the development of a new artistic perception and style that grew from the artist’s personal experience of Italian art and life. It is this search for a mode of expression that was personal and immediate that is very much a part of Géricualt’s ‘Romanticism’. Dying young at the end of a passionate life, Géricault is the painter who is the purest incarnation of Romantic art in France. He had a profound feeling for Classical and ancient art, but that is not a contradiction, for in his execution he is able to transcend the norms and conventions of painting. His achievement of ‘immediacy’ would be built upon by the artists who came after him, and his ability to create an art that would speak to the viewer on a visceral level would create the foundation upon which the modern tradition would stand.
This work will be included in Bruno Chenique’s forthcoming Géricault catalogue raisonné. A certificate from Bruno Chenique will accompany this lot.
Théodore Géricault, Léda et le cygne. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Peter Paul Rubens after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan, 1598. © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen / Hans-Peter Klut / Art Resource, NY.
Théodore Géricault, Léda et le cygne. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans.
Paolo Veronese, Leda and the Swan, 1560. Musée Fesch, Ajaccio. © Artepics / Alamy
Etienne Delaune, Léda d'apres Michel-Ange. Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des estampes, Paris.