The first mention of this important work by Théodore Géricault dates to March 1867. At the time, Charles Clément, the first cataloguer of the artist's work, published his research on the artist in a series of articles in the Gazette des Beaux Arts before publishing it in consolidated form in a book of 425 pages.
Clément devoted significant attention to the painting, then in the Berville collection, writing about it for the first time:
'The young painter always came back to his favourite motif, the horse, and he made the most of the ideal circumstances in which he found himself to study his subject. His uncle, Monsieur Caruel, owned a magnificent property near Versailles, where Géricault would often stay for extended periods. He also found very good models in the Imperial stables at Versailles. It is there, starting in 1810, if one is to believe an inscription placed on the stretcher , and to which the slightly thin and dry execution give a lot of credibility, that he painted three famous stallions that the Emperor had just received. They are portraits: the magnificent white horse, seen in profile and turned to left in the foreground, was called Tamerlan; the second, a bit further back, seen from a three-quarters view from the rear, and covered in a blanket is Néron; the head of the third can be seen above the white stallion. It's a study from nature: precise, tight, full of vigour and sincerity.' (Charles Clément, 'Géricault' (first article), Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. XXII, op. cit., p.223).
Six months later, he added certain basic cataloguing details, listing the painting as no. 20 in his catalogue of the artist's work: '20. Cheval blanc debout dans une écurie...A M. Berville H., 46. - L., 54 cent.' (Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. XXIII, op. cit., p. 276).
All these comments were repeated in the book of 1868 (and the re-edition of 1879), but with this additional comment: 'Certain good judges think that this work is simply a copy of an original work which has disappeared.'(C. Clément, op. cit., 1868, no. 21).
The most important of the 'judges' who threw doubt on a painting which Clément obviously admired, was Louis-Alexandre Jamar (1800-1875), an old studio hand of Géricault's, and one of Clément's main sources of information.
In 1868, at the time when Clément was revising his text, Clément clearly suddenly felt the need to ask Jamar for his opinion. Why had he not done so earlier? One can suppose that the recent appearance of the painting on the market (sale of 29 April 1867) had raised questions in the art trade. Clément had every reason to feel he had a stake in the sale, because his work was mentioned in relation to it for the first time, before his work for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts had even been completed. In other words, henceforth, Clément's word would count in matters of expertise. Jamar answered Clément in a letter of 22 January 1868 (and not, as indicated by Bazin, of 12 February):
'My dear Monsieur Clément, I am replying in all haste to your question about no. 20 in your catalogue, belonging to Monsieur Berville. I remember this painting very well - it seems lacking in painterliness, and doesn't have the energy of the master. Because Monsieur Berville gives us so much information on sales that he has followed very closely, I didn't think it appropriate to contest the authenticity of his painting, which by its subject and all indications should be attributable to Géricault. But personally I couldn't advise anybody to buy it, even if I had more information on its origins.' (quoted in G. Bazin, op. cit., 1987, doc. 369B).
This somewhat ambiguous response from Jamar was therefore taken into account by Clément in the entry for the painting in the 1868 version of his catalogue, but he otherwise didn't change a word of his earlier comments regarding the 'magnificent white horse' and the precision of the painting's execution.
Neither Grunchec nor Bazin were able to express an opinion on a painting which was not available to them, and confused it with an anonymous copy. But in a letter of 30 March 1994, Lorenz Eitner concluded that the present work was indeed that catalogued by Clément and that the painting was, in all likelihood -- and as Clément himself clearly believed -- by Géricault.
A recent restoration has revealed not only the overall very good condition of the painting, but also its extremely high quality, which for years had been hidden under layers of heavy varnish, and crudely applied, often superfluous, retouches.
The present work is therefore of major importance, and stands at the head of the long list of horses painted by Géricault. Clément, as Bazin rightly remarks, accordingly gave a 'special mention' to this very early work (which he would have painted at around 19 years of age). If the work lacks painterliness - a characteristic usually ascribed to Géricault - Clément clearly understood that it was both typical of the artist's early period and showed all the emerging characteristics that would come to define his style.
The most immediately striking features of the present work are the horse's magnificent head and superbly rendered mane. The former is particularly finely structured and clearly similar to the famous Cheval blanc (musée du Louvre, Paris), painted circa 1813-15, and that of the equally well known Cheval arabe gris-blanc (musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen) (fig. 1). Despite the contrary opinion of Osché and Künzi (op. cit.), these three horses seem to be one and the same.
The white and grey coat of the horse in the present work is painted in small, fine touches, deftly and quickly applied, which reveal the texture of the brushes and the dextrous hand of the artist. Each little stroke marks out constrasts of light and dark, and confers to the coat the same shimmering vigour that can be seen in the Rouen painting, and in the grey-white fur, painted with a heavier touch, of the Chat mort (circa 1819-20, musée du Louvre, Paris).
The legs of Tamerlan are also particularly skillfully rendered, having almost been cut out against the background with tiny brushstrokes. They are heightened with small touches of impasto, the effect of which is to bring out the reflection of light.
In the shadows of the stable sketched out in shades of brown, Géricault has placed three horses, which he has deliberately rendered in cursory form, stressing just the outlines, which in the horse on the extreme right are reduced to just a stylized, almost calligraphic brushstroke. This manner of simplifying anatomy is typical of Géricault, and can be found throughout his career; it serves, in this case, to give greater emphasis to the volume and finely rendered details of the horse in the foreground.
Strong parallels can also be found between the wooden beams of the stable and those depicted in Cheval bai-brun à l'écurie, painted by Géricault circa 1811-1813 (Stanford University Museum of Art; Bazin, op. cit, no. 596).
Finally, we also know that Géricault's great friend, Horace Vernet, received an important Imperial commission in 1813. He was asked to paint ten equine portraits of horses 'of imperial rank' -- animals which Napoleon himself might ride. Among the horses listed in the commission, one was named as Le Néron, another as Le Tamerland (sic). The agreement of these two names with those mentioned on the label attached to the stretcher of the present work is intriguing; indeed, one cannot exclude the possibility it was painted in 1813, possibly even in the company of Vernet in the stables at Versailles.
If painted in 1813, the present work could be seen as yet another proof of the important creative relationship between the two young artists. Indeed, one could even suggest the new hypothesis that the Rouen painting, Cheval gris-blanc was conceived in 1813-14 as an aesthetic challenge by Géricault to his friend.
Although the question of dating must remain open, it is also worth noting that the label on the present work, which dates it to 1810, was not written by the artist himself and that it contains several factual errors. Tamerlan, for example, was not bought in April 1808 by General Sébastiani, who was then ambassador in Constantinople, but in Russia, in December 1809. And Néron was taken from the French by Prussia in 1818, not 1814.
In view of its extraordinary quality, it is not surprising that the present work was copied several times. One of these copies (fig. 2) is today in the Smith College Museum of Art, (Bazin, op. cit, no. 593A); the second, equally crude in execution, is in a private collection (Bazin, op. cit., no 595).
As Bazin writes, Jamar's letter of 1868 is a telling sign of 'how much Géricault's oeuvre was already muddled at the time by copies which fooled connoisseurs, and of how much Jamar had to appear firm in order to preserve the image of his master Géricault.' (G. Bazin, op. cit., vol. III, pp. 13-14). If Jamar's reaction seems helpful, one must not forget his motives. He and his co-disciples, Antoine Monfort (1802-1884), and François Lehoux (1803-1892), only began working for Géricault after the latter's return from Italy in November 1817, and were then respectively aged only 17, 15 and 14; by the time of Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) they were still only sweeping the studio floor. They therefore depended upon Clément to raise their status from that of lowly studio hands to that of 'ancient pupils' just as Clément depended upon them as they were the only remaining witnesses to have known Géricault whom he could find and question at ease. Eugène Delacroix, Horace Vernet, Pierre-Anne Dedreux Charlet, Auguste Brunet and René-Richard Castel were all dead by the time he began his research project in 1863, and Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, the last living close friend of the artist, was not forthcoming with any information. Emboldened by the unexpected role that had been assigned by default to them by Clément, Jamar, Montfort and Lehoux invested themselves in a mission which was certainly beyond them. Reading Clément, one gets the impression that they knew everything about their former master, and never missed an opportunity to promote themselves, as proves a certificate of Montfort's aimed at the art market: 'This head, portrait of a grinning Italian...is a painting by M. Géricault which decorated his bedroom, where Lehoux and I saw him constantly, having known Géricault since his return from Italy until his death in 1824, in other words over six years, during which we worked frequently under his tutelage.' (quoted in Bazin, op. cit., vol. II, p. 100).
Research undertaken in the past 30 years reveals clearly that all three of Géricault's assistants had a very limited knowledge of Géricault's activities or work. Even though they were present for much of the time during Géricault's painful demise, in 1823-24, they could not claim the status of intimate friends. They were almost completely ignorant of any of Géricault's output before 1817, and even more so of the very early works that the artist could have lent or given to close friends or members of his family such as the Caruels at Versailles, the Clouards or the Bonnesoeurs at Mortain. Even more seriously, they were unable to point out to Clément the existence of numerous masterpieces by Géricault executed at the time that they had supposedly spent constantly at his side, for example: the Portrait of the Dedreux children (Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Bergé collection), Portrait of a child (musée de Tessé, Le Mans), the series of five paintings of the insane, the portrait Vendéen (Louvre, Paris), Horse frightened by a storm (London, National Gallery), Chat mort (Louvre, Paris) and many others.
Whilst maintaining his own praiseworthy description of the present work in his monographs of 1868 and 1879, Clément, who could not have been unaware of the shortcomings of his principal sources, nevertheless qualified them - with or without irony - as 'good judges'... As Eitner also divined, and is now more than apparent than ever after cleaning, Clément's first instincts were undoubtedly right.
Bruno Chenique, to whom we are grateful for writing the above catalogue entry, will include this present work in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's painted work.
Footnote: The label on the reverse of the present work, referred to by Clément, reads:
'Fait en 1810 par Géricault/Tamerlan [...]/ramenés de Constantinople par Sébastiani/Naeron/Chev[al] Prussien fils d'un [....]Jument/des Haras du roi, pris par nap[oléon] et repris en 1814 par le roi de Prusse Il était garotté./Ces 3 étalons étaient placées à Versailles dans une petite écurie de la 1ère petite Cour à droite donnant s[ur] l'avenue de Paris.'