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Slaves stopping a horse

Théodore Géricault

(1791 - 1824) | 866.3.1

Date : Circa 1817 | Medium : Oil on canvas-backed paper

During a stay in Rome in 1817, Géricault made a series of sketches of the riderless horserace in the Corso. It is possible that the artist had envisaged a large composition on the subject that he never in fact painted.

The sketch at Rouen shows four men, naked or semi-naked, attempting to restrain a horse that is in a state of great agitation, its mane flying in the wind, on the point of starting the race at a gallop. The choice of subject is consistent with Géricault’s fascination with the relationship between man and horse. This theme, very much in vogue at the time of the Napoleonic campaigns was, for Géricault, a real obsession. It was the perfect area of artistic expression for a painter trained in the classical tradition who simultaneously needed to give voice to his own fiery temperament.

Géricault worked diligently as a student in Carle Vernet’s atelier and then with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. The Napoleonic Wars gave him access to 17th century Italian paintings which he copied. He studied anatomy with intense application, seeking to achieve the balance and harmony of the Ancient Greeks. At the same time, his character was at odds with a vision of painting that was too rational. He was by nature impassioned, quick-tempered and driven.

All this is reflected in the small sketch we see here. Stillness and motion are equally present: each figure is held in a position of tension; not a single line is straight apart from the flat surfaces that make up the landscape. The men create an interplay of physical force centred around the horse as they try to control it, holding it immobile even as it is about to leap out of their grasp. Throughout his short career Géricault devoted himself passionately to rendering movement and life in all its vibrant spontaneity.