24,2 x 32,2 cm (9 ½ x 12 11/16 in.)
Oil on canvas
Old inscriptions in black ink at the top left on a frame probably dating from the mid-19th century: "C.M. MATHIEU"
"Tableaux/ Géricault (Théodore)/ - Tête de chien/ Belle étude" (Catalogue de tableaux anciens et modernes, dessins et aquarelle (...) from late Mr. Mathieu, E. Girard, commissaire-priseur, Féral, peintre-expert, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, salle n.7, December Monday 11th 1876, n. 5).
Paris, Edmond Courty’ Collection (1896-1972).
Paris, Private Collection.
Picture cleaned in 2020 by Mme Laurence Baron-Callegari (Restaurateur [English: Conservator] du Patrimoine, diploma from the IFROA).
Picture examined by ARTMYN (Paris), July 2020. Multispecral photographic examination: raking light; ultraviolet reflectography; infrarouge and false color reflectography.
This work will be included in the Catalogue raisonné des tableaux de Théodore Géricault, currently being prepared by M. Bruno Chenique.
This Head of a Bulldog, a magnificent and powerful picture by Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) has remained completely unknown to the artist’s specialists although to their knowledge, it had already been signaled as of 1876.
If time was never taken to devote a study to the depiction of dogs in the art of the painter of The Raft of the Medusa, a rapid survey of his production reveals a strong presence, a strong interest in the subject. One could almost speak of a real leitmotif. Indeed, dogs play an important role: sometimes they are aggressive, resting, or fulfilling their assigned role as man’s faithful companions. In 1989, Robert Rosenblum devoted a small book entitled The Dog in Art : from Rococo to Post-Modernism in which Gericault figured, but with only one picture reproduced in black and white.
Bazin, catalogues an early drawing, maybe realized by 1808, depicting Two Dogs near their Doghouse. In about 1812-1814, the theme of the greyhound is present in many drawings of the so-called Chicago Album which often depicts Gericault’s family universe at Chesnay (near Versailles), that is to say, the chateau of his uncle Jean-Baptiste Caruel and his young wife, Alexandrine-Modeste (née de Saint-Martin). A greyhound, probably their dog, figures in these drawings. A little further on, a hunting dog can be found, and in another drawing, this dog is curiously attributed a seemingly human face.
In the domestic dogs can be found The Procurator, a dog which belonged to Laure Bro, Gericault’s friend and neighbor from the rue des Martyrs. The dog, a type of mastiff or mongrel, is being ridden by little Louis Bro. Clément informs us that it was the painter’s dog:
“[n°] 57. Galoor. A dog, of the mastiff or mongrel species which belonged to Gericault. He is lying down, half of his body outside of his stone doghouse. – Watercolor. – To Colonel O. Bro de Comères. H. 155 – L. 155 mill.” [6 1/8 x 6 1/8 in.]
Other pictures by Gericault on the same theme were sold in the 19th century and have not always been relocated:
“[n°] 46 Blidah. A hunting dog which belonged to Lord H. Seymour. [n°] 47 Two shepherd dogs.”
Finally, in the Gericault’s production, the theme of the aggressive dog, can be found, such as in a magnificent copy of a detail of Jean-Baptiste Deshays’ large canvas, The Martyrdom of Saint André (Museum of Fine Arts, Rouen). A copy which can be dated to the years 1812-1814 and which is somewhat the antithesis of this Head of a Bulldog in which gentleness and calm reign.
Calm and Gentleness
The first known allusion to dogs which is of interest to us dates to the period of Gericault’s death. As hommage to the painter, his friends exhibited some of his works at the Salon of 1824, and Charles Aubry, for his part, exhibited this lithograph realized after a canvas by Gericault (ill. 1):
SAZERAC et DUVAL, boulevard des Italiens, passage de l’Opéra, escalier A.
“[n°] 2141 – Head of a bull-dog, after Géricault, by M. Aubry.”
(Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, gravure, lithographie et architecture des artistes vivants, Paris, Ballard, 1824, p. 226).
Aubry’s lithograph, published by Villain (legal deposit indicated on May 14th, 1824) bore a slightly different title and sub-title: “BULL-DOG /After the study painted by Gericault.” The picture thus reproduced entered Maurice Cotier’s collection and to this day, has not yet be located.
The magnificent picture we present here was totally unknown to Clément, Grunchec, Eitner, and Bazin, who furthermore did not know of the existence of the Mathieu sale of 1876. It is true that the generic title, Head of a Dog, did not make it possible to establish any kind of link with the Gericault’s series of Bulldogs. It is the old stamp in black ink on the upper left of a stretcher which probably dates to the mid 19th century, “C.M. MATHIEU,” which makes it now possible to add an important element to this beautiful file.
Several details, such as the (pointed) form of the ears, and the orientation of the dog’s left ear, the absence of a bump over the left eye, the position and size of the muzzle and neck simply suggested by brilliant brushplay, prove that this picture was not the model for Aubry’s 1824 lithograph. We are thus confronted with another version, maybe the very first, that is, a true study from life. Theodore Gericault thus wished above all to concentrate on the bulldog’s head and expression.
For it is indeed a portrait before us. The eyes are not bloodshot and nor do they betray the least sign of ferociousness. Bazin is imprisoned by the verb “inject” when he affirms that the animal “appears to growl.” Here, these little touches of red are in no way a symbol of anger. Completely the contrary: this bulldog seems gentle and affectionate. That’s due to a technique of fragmenting a close-up, Gericault has created a truly psychological portrait, a vibrant sensitive dialogue between the animal, the painter (his master), and the viewer. Quite justly, Robert Rosenblum could write, “As he is presented here, the animal achieves a degree of personification that we are given the fairly disturbing impression of addressing him [the dog] on equal footing.”
The dialogue is fascinating here. The pictorial technique is at the service of this mute tête-à-téte. The surface is lively and rapid. Brushstrokes are deliberately left visible, revealling delightfully unctuous paint. The economy of colors and speed of brushplay, engorged with black, brown, red, and white, perfectly renders the dog’s coat of fur. The painting is executed with straight colors. Gericault did not use half-tones nor passages softened in the light. The power of this canvas is even more unquestionable. This brilliant texture demonstrates solid knowledge of pictorial means and a very elaborate technique at the service of powerful expression and a subtly balanced troubling monumentality.
According to the criteria of Romantic aesthetics, one can not speak of an unfinished canvas. This is, on the contrary, a real study, taken from life (undoubtedly in a single sitting, without any subsequent retouching), which essentially conveys what the painter felt and wanted to communicate.
We would like to thank M. Bruno Chenique,
member of the Union française des experts, for his assistance in composing this notice.