'Yet the black man was not simply an empty emblem stamped across Géricault’s canvasses. The artist delved deeply into all phases of his being – his warrior’s pride, lover’s passion and defender’s defiance, his humiliation in slavery, his caution in attack and his terror before death. The black man became for Théodore Géricault a symbol of the grandeur and the misery of all human existence.'1
The rediscovery of this exceptional watercolor illustrates a fact long known but, until recent times, little discussed: that of the importance placed by Géricault on the representation of black men and women within both his drawn and painted œuvre
. Within the context of early 19th
century Europe, a period in which legalized slavery was still an active form of commercial trade, Géricault’s heroic portrayals of black men and women were at odds with a culture in which profit was prioritized over the most basic of human rights.
Though this remarkably well preserved sheet disappeared from view shortly after its creation, conserved in a 19th
century album, the composition in its essence was previously known through two pen and ink drawings by Géricault, one in reverse to the present work in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Besançon,2
and the other formerly in the His de la Salle collection and engraved by Baudran.3
Speculation as to the nature of the scene depicted is bound up with a larger body of Géricault’s work based on the theme of the fate of black people in his time and inspired by the artist’s abolitionist sympathies. The present work appears to depict a couple of noble standing, set in an idealized vision of the tropics, with palm trees, sea and mountains in the distance. The man appears to be offering comfort or bidding farewell to his female companion, who seems weakened with fear and anxiety at their impending separation.
Black men and women appear repeatedly in Géricault’s art: from the heroic gesture of the man at the apex of his Raft of the Medusa
(1818-19) to the artist’s charismatic portraits in oil. Yet it is a small number of drawings depicting scenes of war with which the present work can be most closely compared, most notably the so-called Standard Bearer
now at Stanford University Museum of Art and a second sheet, previously on the London art market depicting a Warrior on horseback
The attribution of this drawing was previously confirmed by the late Lorenz Eitner and further endorsed by Bruno Chenique, who plans to include it in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné
of the unpublished drawings of Théodore Géricault.
1 K. Berger and D. Chalmers Johnson, 'Art as Confrontation: The Black man in the work of Géricault', The Massachusetts Review, vol. 10, no. 2, Spring 1969, p. 314.
2 G. Bazin, Théodore Géricault: étude critique, documents et catalogue raisonné, Paris 1997, vol. VII, p. 267, no. 2671, reproduced.
3 Bazin 1997, vol. VII, p. 267, no. 2671A.
4 G. Bazin, Théodore Géricault: étude critique, documents et catalogue raisonné, Paris 1992, vol. V, pp. 175-76, reproduced.
5 Bazin 1992, vol. V, p. 177, no. 1556, reproduced.