Finding a balance

The second of Gericault's teachers, Guerin, is supposed to have said of his tremendously talented pupil, ''He has enough stuff in him for three or four painters.'' The paintings, drawings and lithographs remaining from his short career suggest that this was an astute comment.

Gericault was not one of those artists who single-mindedly pursues only one aspect of things. He is never wholly a ''romantic'' or wholly a ''classical'' painter: he is both. He is never all out for historical heroics, nor is he entirely an observer of modern life: he is both traditionalist and modernist. And his art cannot be placed with any conclusiveness on one side or the other of that artificial, academic divide between ''linear'' and ''colourist'' painters.

Characteristic of the man was what happened when he went to England in 1820 (returning to Paris in 1822). His great painting ''The Raft of the Medusa'' (a documentary theme of a disaster with political implications, for which he stage-managed an ambitious mixture of biting, obsessive candour and high-flying, if morbid, sublimity) was being toured round Britain. He, in the meantime, was being impressed and surprisingly moved by a very different kind of painting, much more naturalistic and low-key: the genre and landscape, animal and portrait paintings, of contemporary British painters.

In a letter to a fellow French painter, he mentions James Ward, whose animal pictures developed a tradition from seventeenth-century Dutch painting, and he particularly admires David Wilkie's picture of ''Chelsea Pensioners'' reading news of a military victory in the Bulletin. He praises this Scottish painter's use of ''touching expressions,'' the simplicity of his subject, and the pathos, ''as convincing as nature herself,'' which is achieved even though ''the sky is not rent with lights of sinister omen.''

''The Flemish Farrier'' is one of a series of lithographs made by Gericault in England, and it impressively demonstrates the effect of his ''Anglomania.'' It is, comparatively speaking, a work without high drama, without grandiosity, and devoid of the kind of blatant presentation of the ''horrible'' that he often favoured. While it certainly shows his continual and fascinated interest in horses, and the vigorous relationship between them and their human masters, it is unlike some of his earlier treatments of the subject, in that this immense and quiet dray horse is a creature of plodding labour and patience, of restrained strength, rather than an animal of wild, untamed energies or admired speed, showy prowess or sudden fear.

But the influence of English art on Gericault was by no means a takeover. He can never be described as a young artist swinging from one enthusiastic discovery to another. He had already used what he learned from antique sculpture and reliefs, and from Michelangelo, to give his own subjects form and organization, lofty meanings and frozen energy. These art influences were at first hand, not through casts or engravings, but he still brought them to bear on his own firsthand experiences from life. It was the same when he encountered British art.

What is so original and striking about the watercolours and lithographs he made in this country is that although he invested them with the kind of modest literalness of the British genre painters, at the same time he did retain strong , if modified, characteristics from his previous work. The farrier in this lithograph, for instance, is an amalgam from various sources, though still typically a figure by Gericault. Its ingredients include Michelangelo's musculature (the horse is impressively endowed with this); the heroic stance of the protagonists in Jacques Louis David's great history painting, ''Oath of the Horatii''; and possibly the memory of some charioteer on an antique sarcophagus. All these strands contribute to an image of ''the working man'' - and the working horse - as a hero built out of inner and noble forces. This was quite new, and would not be seen again in painting until the works of Courbet and, later, Van Gogh.

''The Flemish Farrier'' manages to contain within an unpretentious scene something of the pent-up and released potency of ''the grand style.'' But then, almost with irony, Gericault contrasts the farrier with the man (the horse's owner?) in the right foreground. He is so nonchalantly enjoying a rest, and so unconcerned, that the sweat and heat and noise of the horseshoeing in process behind him seem all the more fierce. It's as if, in this comparison of attitudes , Gericault was illustrating two different possibilities of art: the expressively dramatic event, on the one hand, all effort and strenuous skill; and on the other, a peaceable uneventfulness, an apparently effortless observation of the ordinary and everyday. Action and inaction, he seems to say, are of balanced value to the artist: concentrated perspiration and absent-minded inspiration,m both.

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