This two-sided drawing, executed by Géricault around 1814, comes from a dismembered album which gathered on its pages various separate, often quite small sketches, mainly of military subjects. In the present sheet, studies of cavaliers and officers, portraits of orientals and an effigy of Napoleon, are harmoniously arranged on both recto and verso. These spontaneous sketches, drawn from life or from memory, were often used by the artist for his larger painted compositions.
In the posthumous sale of the artist's studio (Paris, 2-3 November 1824) lot 42 consisted of 'thirty-three sketchbooks filled with studies: figures, animals, landscape views and compositions'. The present drawing certainly comes from one of these albums. The numbers on its recto and verso, '38' and '39', were inscribed by a later hand and can also be found on other drawings that came from the same album. Three of these, which were formerly in the Vercier collection, bear the numbers '26' and '27', '34' and '35', and '32' and '33' respectively (Paris, Artcurial, 21 March 2010, lots 60-2; Bazin 947-9 and 952-4); another sheet is numbered '30-31' (Los Angeles, Getty Museum, inv. 88.GD.46; Bazin 945-6), and a drawing formerly in the Gobin Collection in Paris is numbered '40' (Paris, Piasa, 31 March 2000, lot 115; Bazin 958). Of the 33 sketchbooks, today only the Zoubaloff album exists in its entirety and its original form (Paris, Louvre, inv. RF 6072; Bazin 978-1020). Another album, the so-called Chicago album, is often cited as a comparison for the group to which these drawings belongs but actually assembles four different sketchbooks (see L. Eitner, Géricault an album of drawings in the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1960; and C. Sells, 'A revised dating for part of Géricault's Chicago Album', Master Drawings, XXVII, 1989, no. 4, pp. 341-57).
Often, as in the case of the present work, the studies in these sketchbooks can be connected to Géricault's paintings or watercolors. They represent first ideas drawn ad vivum, then re-elaborated on large canvases in the studio, sometimes months or years later. In the upper right corner of the recto for example, is a sketch of a soldier on a horse, which is unambiguously connected to the painting Count Colbert, Colonel of the Second Regiment of the Horse Guard, called the Dutch Lancer and to other preparatory studies for it (fig. 1; Denver Art Museum, inv. E-1292; Bazin 795). To the left is a study for the same figure riding the horse, but seen from behind. At the center of the sheet is a sketch of another soldier, possibly an early study for the painting First Regiment Lancer, called The Polish Lancer (fig. 2; private collection; Bazin 782). In the lower right corner Géricault sketched a carabinier in profile : the same figure is to be found at the center of a finished watercolour today in the Louvre (inv. RF 4619; Bazin 976). In the lower left corner is a detail of a study for the Trumpeter of the Polish Lancers (Glasgow, Burrell collection; Bazin 798). The man wearing a Russian military uniform in the lower center, could be identified with the young Tsar Alexander I of Russia as can be seen in a print by Thomas Kelly (London, The British Museum, inv. no. 1875, 0612. 212).
On the verso appear two studies of a groom on his horse (upper left corner), an hussar on a horse (at the center), and two studies of an oriental man in profile (upper right corner). In the lower right corner, a lightly drawn portrait in profile with a pronounced straight, sharp nose, can be identified as Napoleon; it is close to another of Géricault's drawings of him, a sheet in the Chicago album (fol. 44r), in which the emperor is sketched sitting on his horse, in profile to the left, and pointing his right arm (Bazin 788). The inscription 'Willem Ackermann' might refer to Wilhelm Heinrich Ackermann (1789-1848), a teacher who enlisted in the Prussian army during the German war of liberation. He entered Paris with the allied armies in April 1814.
The present drawing testifies to the turbulent times in which Géricault was living at the end of the Napoleonic era. Though he managed to escape the military conscription imposed by the Empire in 1811 and 1812, the artist was nevertheless much involved in these dramatic events. The year 1814 coincided with Napoleon's German campaign after the emperor's retreat from Russia. The year saw the end of the French domination of Europe, sealed by the Treaty of Paris (30 May 1814) and the abdication of the Emperor. Géricault witnessed the entrance of the allied forces into Paris who reinstated King Louis XVIII; he even went so far as to become mousquetaire du roi in June 1814, after having previously been a member of the National Horse Guard. His proximity to the events and to the men who were making history, were an inexhaustible source of subjects for the artist. As Michael Marrinan wrote 'images of infantrymen and cavaliers, of violent combats and poor victims of the Napoleonic wars, fill pages and pages of his sketchbooks' (Géricault, Dessins et estampes des collections de l'Ecole des Beaux Arts, exhib. cat., Paris, Ecole nationale Supérieure des Beaux- Arts, 1997, p. 36).
The sketches on this sheet reflect Géricault's exuberant and passionate, but at the same time coherent, search for the appropriate composition. They demonstrate his perfect command of gestures and postures, of men as well as animals, so that even the tiniest sketch renders exactly the shape and movements of a figure. He relentlessly draws and re-draws an object or person, trying to obtain a vivid and lifelike ensemble. The artist's hand has to move fast in order to keep pace with the speed of his mind, which rapidly moves from one thought to the next. How else can one explain those passages where the figures are superimposed on each other?