WILLIAMSTOWN — The man who painted this haunting picture, which hangs in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, died at 32. After falling from a horse, Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) developed an abscess on his spine, which, after a subsequent riding collision, burst, spreading its deadly infection. Gericault spent the last 11 months of his life confined to a sickroom.
Although he lived a year longer than Franz Schubert, who was almost his exact contemporary, no one would say that Gericault possessed the genius of Schubert, or achieved anything like as much. His contemporaries regarded him as little more than a gifted amateur. And posterity has never known quite what to do with so brief and provisory a career.
But Gericault did find time to paint “The Raft of the Medusa,” one of the greatest paintings in the history of art. And he is rightly remembered, despite the brevity of his years, as one of the more magnetic personalities during that tumultuous and charismatic period.
“Trumpeter of the Hussars” by Theodore Gericault
“Trumpeter of the Hussars” (the title alone is surpassingly pungent) is one of a series of images of soldiers on horseback that Gericault painted very early in his career. (The others include the colossal “Charging Chasseur” and “Wounded Cuirassier Leaving the Field of Battle,” both in the Louvre.)
All this was just as the great Napoleonic adventure was fizzing out, so it’s no surprise that we get an early whiff in Gericault’s pictures of Romanticism, which was essentially a long lament for the failure of that adventure.
The Clark’s smaller image may, on the face of it, be less dramatic than Gericault’s bigger set-pieces. But, to me, it is more memorable.
Oddly static, it is infused with melancholy, and a sort of psychological stuckness (even in the heat of battle, the winds of history gusting all around!) reinforced by its shadowy palette and its loose but slightly clotted brushwork.
“Trumpeter of the Hussars” was probably painted after Gericault’s return from Italy, where he discovered Michelangelo with a vengeance, in 1817. But it may have been as early as 1815 or as late as 1820.
The painting is surrounded by other mysteries, too. A technical examination in 1991 revealed that strips of canvas were added to the original painting on all four sides. The rusty color in the picture’s middle section — evoking the acrid haze of a chaotic battle in the gloaming — replaced a cooler pink and yellow scheme. And both the charging mounted soldier beneath the horse’s hind legs and the briskly painted row of soldiers at far left were also later additions.
These changes were made either during Gericault’s lifetime or shortly after. Scholars believe they were probably by him, but they can’t be certain.
Does it matter? Not especially. The painting stands alone, aloof, smokily introspective. It cares not a fig for our technical busybodying. Something more crucial is at stake. Whatever it is, there is one thing we know: It hangs in the balance.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.