Verso: Brush Sketches of a Man’s Head with a Turban, a Horse’s Head and Hindquarters
Delacroix was the greatest painter of the first half of the 19th century and almost as soon as he finished studying, he was recognised as the leader of the Romantic Movement in France. Before completing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he had trained with Pierre Narcisse Guérin where he met and learned alongside other leading painters of the time such as Théodore Géricault (1791-1824).
Delacroix was fascinated by animals, in particular horses, and depicted them throughout his career, both alone and as participants in compositions. In his early years, he drew and painted detailed anatomical studies and sketches in which the horse dominates and the context is given summary attention, as in our painting. Later these animals were shown in dramatic settings in his Romantic works and in exotic northern Africa subjects among his Orientalist paintings. Finally, energetic compositions concentrating on the animal itself and confirming the artist’s intimate knowledge of the horse’s anatomy and movement are to be found among his late works.
This interest was characteristic of the period and Delacroix is not the only major artist of the early 19th century to include equine subjects among their oeuvre. The publication of George Stubbs’ “The Anatomy of the Horse”, richly illustrated with prints from drawings he had made during each stage of dissection in 1766 contributed to a renewal of artists’ interest in the depiction of horses. At the same time, the first horse race took place in France, a sport that was to become popular in that country under the Empire. This was also the period of glorious exploits by the newly modernised French cavalry, providing subjects for artists such as Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), Carle Vernet (1758-1836) and Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) with his painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Malmaison) in which the Emperor’s mount dominates the composition.
At the beginning of his career, Delacroix visited stables and painted horses alongside his close friend Théodore Géricault and the younger artist’s early depictions of these subjects reflect the older painter’s manner of showing the animal against a neutral background, indicating the setting summarily. In his early years, as we know from his Journal, Delacroix both drew and painted equine subjects incessantly, sometimes capturing a part of the animal’s body with just a few strokes of the brush or pencil, as is can be seen on the reverse of our canvas.
Delacroix’s posthumous sale included 36 paintings of horses, many of which were only blocked in. Two lots, 210 and 211 included a total of 24 studies, with no description of the individual paintings, making identification particularly difficult. However, our painting, which appears to be almost a finished work, formed an independent lot (lot 207) and is one of a smaller number of studies in oil produced in 1823 and 1824 in which the context is shown, but serves solely to highlight the animal. All of these known studies are dateable to the period before 1830, so it seems that after then, Delacroix did not paint horse studies in oils, although he continued to do so in other media. His great skill and technical confidence are already evident in the rich and sophisticated brushwork used to show the texture of the animal’s coat to which the artist has paid careful attention, using a variety of colours to indicate light reflecting on it. He has also used rapid, dense strokes to place the animal in an identifiable space, again highlighting its contours with the use of contrasting colours around the animal itself. Delacroix’s interest in realistic detail is visible in the precise depiction of the horse’s leather collar and buckle.
A comparable work of the period is the Study of a Brown-Black Horse Tethered to a Wall, formerly in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Washington (Johnson no. 47). This shows a horse treated in a similarly refined manner to ours, where the varying colours are used to show the horse’s muscle structure under its coat while the surroundings are illustrated with rapid, clearly visible, brushstrokes. These paintings contrast strongly with the slightly later painting of Two Horses Fighting in a Stormy Landscape, acquired in 2006 by the Clark Art Institute (Williamstown, MA), a dramatic scene in the Romantic vein, created only a few years later.
The dimensions given to our painting in publications have varied, but there can be no doubt that the same painting is being referred to, as the reproduction in the publications of Robaut and Johnson confirm.