Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 23 x 30 cm
Jean-Pierre Dantan (jeune) 1869 (catalogued by Clément in 1879); Private Collection, France, 1992.
Charles Clément, Étude Biographique et Critique Peintures (1818 a 1820, Paris 1879)). “131. Scène d’Interieur. Un homme tient une femme à bras-le-corps. Une autre femme est couchée sur un lit – A.M. Dantan Jeune. H. 20 – L. 29”. (p. 309). Philippe Grunchec, Gericault, L’Opera Completa di, Milan 1978, p. 128, no 275; Philippe Grunchec, Connaissance des Arts, “Un tableau erotique de Gericault retrouvé”, no. 484, June 1992; Lorenz Eitner, Couple Entwined with a Nude Spectator, in Fifty Paintings 1535-1825, Stair sainty matthiesen Inc and Matthiesen Gallery, london, 1993, pp. 198-207. For comparative study, see also: Germain Bazin, Theodore Gericault, 4 vols., Paris 1987; Lorenz E.A. Eitner, Géricault, his Life and Work, London, 1983.
A series of similar, but slightly earlier works, sometimes disguised as mythological subjects – satyrs, centaurs and nymphs, Leda and the Swan, – which all express an exaggerated sensuality and were executed in Rome following Gericault’s failure in the Prix de Rome competition of 1816 are close in sentiment. As Eitner points out, these are like nothing else in his earlier oeuvre. Executed on dark toned paper, washed with ink and heightened with powerful strokes of white, they are in effect monochrome paintings on paper and, with their bold contrasts, clearly anticipate the use of light and shadow in our painting. The most immediate comparison must be, however, with the Pair of Lovers in the Thyssen Collection, a black chalk, wash and gouache drawing dating from 1818 in which a seated nude male passionately kisses a naked woman, who lies across his lap exposed entirely to our view (only her lower legs are draped). The antique bed enclosed in an alcove on which the three figures lie, recalls a similar one in an earlier black chalk and brown wash drawing of an Antique Couple (Niarchos Collection), that Grunchec compares with the two studies from the Bayonne Museum. The position of the embracing lovers also echoes a drawing, The Grasp, (Louvre), catalogued by Germain Bazin with twenty other sheets under the title “the fight of love”.
While this intense scene takes place in a setting resembling the classical furnishings of the Niarchos drawing, the contrast with the classicism of David and his generation could hardly be greater. Earlier artists treated the varied sexual passions that provide the theme for so many subjects from classical antiquity with a circumspection dictated by academic convention, even when disguising contemporary emotions. Gericault, however, pays no regard to prudish sensibilities here. With unambiguous realism the artist has demonstrated the timeless force of human sexuality; despite the setting these figures are as just as likely to be the artist’s contemporaries as characters from classical history. In view of the artist’s burgeoning interest in contemporary life, which began while in Rome and culminated in triumph with the Raft of the Medusa, we may reasonably suppose that his inspiration was fuelled by his own fantasies, perhaps even some personal experience, rather than the dry pages of history or mythology.
This painting seems to have been produced at the height of his passionate affair with his uncle’s young wife, Alexandrine Modeste Caruel de Saint-Martin, which led to the birth of a son on the 21st of August 1818. We still know too little of the impact of this relationship to come to any final conclusion but in the reclining woman we may recognize the features and sensual curves of a model frequently used by Gericault, known as fat Susan, or perhaps he even intended to represent his lover, Alexandrine-Modeste.
When Charles Clément published his first version of the catalogue of Gericault’s paintings (Gazette des Beaux-Art,September – October 1867), he did not appear to know of this work. It was not until the publication of the third edition in 1879 that he mentions it being in the collection of the sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan, along with Woman Seen from the Front Lifting up her Shirt (belly and thighs), – a larger work of 58 by 40 centimeters. Our painting is described as “Interior Scene, A Man holding a Woman in his Arms – Another Woman Reclining on a Bed – Dantan Jeune 20 by 29 centimetres”; both works are dated by him between 1818-1820, contemporary with the Raft of the Medusa.
Perhaps because of their erotic nature, neither painting can be found in any earlier documents. Dantan died in 1869 and, although the existence of his personal collection of erotica had not remained absolutely secret – several newspaper cuttings assembled by him and retained in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris attest to this – one may assume that this aspect of his collection did not enjoy the same publicity as the Dantan Museums in the Place d’Orleans and the Rue Blanche! Grunchec proposes that as Dantan was only twenty-four years old at the time of the Gericault sale, following the death of the artist in January 1824, he must have acquired his two pictures later, perhaps through a relation or friend of the artist. Gericault himself was only twenty-six or twenty-seven when he executed them, however, and youth seems no reason to deny either one’s collecting instincts or a liking for the erotic.
Grunchec suggests that Baron Schickler, of whom Dantan later made a portrait and who was a member of the artist’s circle, would have been one possible intermediary; another he names was the violinist and collector Charles Sauvageot (1781-1860), a substantial donor to the Louvre who gave Dantan much of his own private collection of erotica.
This picture was certainly executed in France. The canvas, which is unlined, has on the reverse the stamp of the artistic supply merchant Belot, rue de l’Arbre sec. no. 3., and stylistically it may be directly compared with other works of this year, most notably the several oil sketches for the Medusa.