Théodore Géricault’s Lost Horse

Théodore Géricault Horse Frightened by Lightning  1813-14.


2nd year Art History student David Emmons provides a vivid account of Géricault’s horse.

My journey upon the 9.22 train from Folkestone West to London St Pancras, and
subsequent change over to the Piccadilly line to Leicester Square, followed by a short
walk to the steps of the National Gallery had, in part, been in vain, as I realised that the
great depths of the gallery’s vaults and hidden collections had claimed yet another
victim: Horse Frightened by Lightning by Théodore Géricault.
It was practically the only thing I had wished to see today; to stand before its 60cm wide
multitude of precise brushstrokes and to marvellously proclaim “what a thing.”
Instead, I meandered, with Beethoven’s 9th playing loudly in my ears, as I scoured the
long halls for any such comparable horses. I found none. That is because Horse
Frightened by Lightning by Théodore Géricault is an absolute masterpiece, and well
worthy of a hall all for its own.
The entirety of Géricault’s style, and life of artistic endeavour is encapsulated and born
within Horse Frightened by Lightning. It is an autobiography and philosophical peg hung
by one of the greatest and most short lived artists of the 19th Century. We see him as a
child in Paris, who has become known for loitering in the local blacksmith shop,
ferociously sketching everything that he sees, and we see him at thirty-two, prematurely
dying from his horse riding injuries, in the same year as the demise of Byron. His
enduring and early love for horses is paramount, and is seen in almost every aspect of
his biographies by Charles Clément, and in the wondrous sketches of his ‘Chicago
Album’. He used to frequent the Cirque Olympique de Franconi, and stare longingly at
the equestrians, filled with admiration and wonder. Believing that the riders had bowed
legs, he even tried creating a device that would increase the curvature of his legs, so
great was his desire to encompass himself in the world of equestrianism.
His friend and fellow artist Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, dictated to the art critic
Charles Blanc that as ”a naive youngster, [Géricault] stood watch at the gates to the
great mansions and caught the Duchesses making their exits, and…he was so charmed
by the sight of those long-necked Mecklenburgers, with their luxurious equipages, that
he followed them for some distance, using both eyes and feet, like those Parisian
gamins who fall in behind drummers.”
Perhaps, as a young man, Géricault saw horses as symbols of elegance, excitement,
and accomplishment, of class and tradition. Perhaps he saw in horses a universality, a
transcendence, and an enduring position in social history and art history that he so
longed for himself. This is of course a man who, being born in 1791, has grown up
during revolution, with the French Revolutionary Wars, so the stability and reliability of
horses is something that he may have been drawn to as a child. They are ridden by
soldiers, Dukes, Duchesses, Queens and Kings. They have been painted by all of the
masters, throughout all mediums and schools of art. They die on the battlefields, they
work in the fields, and they inhibit the stables of royal palaces. The power of the horse
as a symbol is not to be underestimated, and Géricault certainly did not.
He chose for his first teacher to be Carle Vernet, a very fashionable and skilled painter
who focused mainly on the equine. Géricault copied many of his paintings, but they
were mannerist in style, far too elongated, artificial, and stylised. He sought a more
classicist approach that focused on form and proportion, and so chose his second
teacher to be the 1797 Prix de Rome winner Pierre-Narcisse, Baron Guerin. Géricault
learnt lots from Guerin, who would later go on to teach Eugène Delacroix. However, he
still yearned for something different, as he found classicism too formulaic, too tired, and
he wished to renew it. He wanted to deal with modern themes, with a high level of
creativity. He studied at the Louvre, and found great inspiration in the wall-filling epics of
Rubens, Velasquez, and Titian.
This led to his first admission to the Paris salon in 1812, The Charging Chasseur. It was
a large-scale improvised piece full of emotional and expressive intensity. It also dealt
with a modern theme, as it signified the year of Napoleon’s assault on Russia. Horse
Frightened by Lightning, painted around a year after The Charging Chasseur, is the
perfect culmination of Géricault’s artistic journey to this date. His studies at the stables
of the palaces of Versailles also aided the piece.
The painting shows a horse reacting to a bolt of lightning, and its accompanying
thunder. Géricault has chosen not to show the horse rearing in a dramatic fashion, or
violently pulling against a tether, but instead shows it completely still. Géricault creates
energy in other ways. The use of staccato brushwork adds a static energy to the fur, like
raised hackles, and the muscles along its legs and body are all rippled and individually
outlined. The inner corner of the horse’s eye is slightly raised, and the ridge of the eye
socket is heavily defined. The white of its eye is exposed, and a tiny touch of white oil to
the side of its pupil adds to the feeling of restrained movement. This all creates an
extremely expressive epicentre to the piece; we see fear in the eye of the horse. This
shows close observation, and detailed naturalism, that pulls him away from the
classicism and mannerist style of his teaching.
Géricault is not painting a horse as an aesthetic vessel for human endeavour, or as a
component of a history painting, or a signifier of a classical theme. This is a painting of a
horse as a living and breathing creature, capable of deep human emotions. We
empathise with the horse, and see the human experience reflected back at us. We can
feel Géricault’s empathy and deep understanding of the horse. In this respect, we
associate with Géricault a high level of emotional intelligence with regard to the horse.
The horse looks to be a thoroughbred, as it is trim and physically fit, and looks like it has
been groomed. This is echoing formal thoroughbred portraits. But the horse has no
tether or shoes, and appears to be miles from any stable. There is no path around it,
and we see the vast expanse of the sky in the background. It is brooding, swirling, and
thickly applied. The ground is hard to define, and has been painted with a thick brush, or
a pallet knife. The browns are similar in colour to the horse’s coat, and so the entire
landscape exists to consume the horse, to swirl and blend around it. It creates a feeling
of displacement. The horse, whether tame or wild, is lost, and at the mercy of the storm.
This loneliness and displacement may well mirror Géricault’s own feelings of living alone
in Paris, dwarfed by the sublime and unattainable skill of the masters he is studying
every day.
We also see hints of his future work in the piece; his love for modern lithography, his
1820 trip to England to encounter the anti-classicist traits of the modern English artists,
and his rubenesque treatment of the horse’s flesh as subject means that this painting
fits just as well with Anatomical Pieces of 1819, or indeed The Raft of Medusa of
1818-19. His gigantism and realism, combined with his desire to breathe new life into
his classicist teachings, and his dramatic light effects, goes on to inspire an entire
generation of romantics. It is impossible to deny the influence of his work, with Eugène
Delacroix even creating the similarly named Horse Frightened by a Thunderstorm in
Therefore, in this piece Géricault has done to horses what Duchamp did to the toilet,
and Warhol to the soup can; he has transformed them from a means of everyday life, to
living artistic forms and universally emotive symbols. He has inspired an entire
movement, and arguably marked the social birth of the modern concept of emotional
intelligence and newfound understanding of animals. It is arguably the pinnacle and
very turning point of the nineteenth century, and it is frankly rather strange that it lies
hidden in the basement, stuck between polystyrene and cardboard. That frightened
horse should be standing proud, in the centre of the storm. It should still be inspiring,
questioning and intriguing all who stray into its path. Théodore Géricault has been lost
to the vaults before, his art unappreciated and undervalued. I would urge the National
Gallery to rehang the frightened horse, so that we can confidently say that we will never
let this happen again. Let us guide this lost horse home!

This is an extract from work on the module Art in the Nineteenth Century.