• Posthumous sale of the artist’s studio, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, F. Petit, appraiser, March 16th, 1857, part of one of the 38 lots of drawings (sale mark in blue ink on lower right: Lugt 443).
• France, Private Collection.
The turning point of 1850 marked the blossoming of Theodore Chasseriau’s art at the age of barely thirty-one. Ingres’ teaching, a year-long stay in Italy, work on Othello, the exalting discovery of Algeria, the immense undertaking of decorating the stairwell of the Palace of the Conseil d’Etat and Cour des comptes, and a failed affair with Alice Ozy had forged his personality and style. Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1849, Chasseriau presents himself as a complete painter, diversifying his subjects, mixing classical and antique references, Romantic feelings, passionate expression of human sentiments, and rigorous realism in the description of beings and things. From this point of view, the Salon of 1850-1851 is exemplary: the artist exhibited two portraits there (Madame de Savigny and Alexis de Toqueville), a small intimate scene evoking Italy (Fisherman’s Wife of Mola de Gaëte Embracing her Child), a small work inspired by Antiquity (Sappho), a small Shakespearian picture (Desdemona), a nude (Sleeping Bather), an Algerian memory (Woman and Young Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle) and a large intense ambitious Orientalist painting (Arab Horsemen Carrying Away their Dead).
An example of Chasseriau’s incessant aesthetic pursuits and the variety of his themes, our drawing can be dated fairly precisely to 1853, a particularly fecund year in the artist’s life. He finished the baptismal font chapel decoration in the Church of Saint Roch in Paris and met with great success at the Salon for his Tepidarium, which was purchased by the State fifteen days after its exhibition. The same year, he produced the Return of the Wounded, a small poignant panel in line with the Arab Horsement Taking Away their Dead of 1850 (Cambridge, Harvard Art Museums, inv. 1943.219), maybe a preparatory sketch for a canvas which was never realized. The static verticality and isolation of the figures contrasts with the torrential and turbulent violence of the Arab Cavalry onslaughts which Chasseriau painted after returning from North Africa. Our quick study of a nude horseman vacillating on his mount is one of the premières pensées for the figure in the background. It is close to a similar sketch in black pencil on blue paper (21.3 x 24.1 cm./ 8 3/8 x 9 ½ in. Paris, Louvre Museum, inv. RF 24457), as well as to another figure on horseback carrying two corpses (black pencil, 21.9 x 23.4 cm. /8 5/8 x 9 ¼ in. inv. RF 24479).
The verso of our sheet showing beagles and a horsehead is related to a portrait finished in 1854 of one of the painter’s close friends, Oscar, Count of Ranchicourt, Leaving on a Hunt. Two other studies in pencil of dogs and horses for this picture are conserved in the Louvre (inv. RF 25066 and 25302) which also has preparatory drawings for the pendant which depicts the Countess Pauline Clotilde, née de Buus d’Hollebèque (Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts, inv. 2015.229).
As with ours, none of the sketches is strictly speaking preparatory and transposed as such onto the canvas. Chasseriau was in the habit of fixing his first thoughts in pencil or pen without seeking to precisely define the composition of the future painting. Thus, noticeable differences occur between his preliminary graphic studies and final works which are often constructed directly on the canvas. The two-sided drawing we present is a remarkable example of these bold rapid sketches with vibrant contours and irregular hatching. It is equally exceptional in that one can glimpse the artist’s creativity in working on several pieces at the same time. It even has a small addition which seems either earlier or slightly later: a gracious head of a woman in pen which recalls Desdemona’s face in Desdemona Going to Bed of 1849 (Paris, Louvre Museum, inv. RF 3880).
Our sheet is all the more precious because, although Chasseriau’s graphic work is vast, only a few drawings and some very rare studies are conserved in private hands. They come from the artist’s posthumous sale organized at Drouot shortly after his early disappearance in 1856. A group of several dozen sheets “carefully put under glass and each with a blue stamp to certify its origins” were dispersed there. Today about two hundred fifty can be counted scattered among French and foreign museums, as well as a few private collections. As to the bulk of the drawings accumulated in Chasseriau’s studio, more than two thousand two hundred loose sheets and thirty-five sketchbooks ended up with the painter’s oldest brother Frédéric, and then his first cousin, Baron Arthur Chasseriau, who bequeathed them to the Louvre in 1934.
Louis-Antoine PRAT, “Théodore Chassériau, Œuvres réapparues: Études, portraits, ambiguïtés,” Revue de l’Art, 2011-1, no 171, p. 44, fig. 11 and 12.
Stéphane GUEGAN, Vincent POMAREDE, Louis-Antoine PRAT, Chassériau. Un autre romantisme, exh. cat. Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Strasbourg, Museum of Fine Arts, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.