14. Léon Cogniet

Paris 1794 – 1880 Paris

Géricault on his Sickbed, 1823

It was during his training in the studio of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833) that Léon Cogniet first became acquainted with Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). The lasting friendship the two artists developed would go on to be illustrated in the many portraits Cogniet drew of his fellow-pupil,1 and even more poignantly in those of Géricault at the end of his life. Géricault’s long sickness took its emotional toll on many of his comrades – notably Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet (1792-1845) and Alexandre Corréard (1788-1857)2 – and they thronged to his bedside to transcribe on paper or canvas the countenance of the dying painter; a last and moving testimony of their reciprocal esteem.

This effigy of the artist on his sickbed by Léon Cogniet, of which very few copies remain,3 led up to a retrospective portrait popularised by lithography. The Musée des Beaux-Arts of Orléans preserves its original drawing,4 which in fact would be dated to 1824; most likely after Géricault’s death on 26 January that year.5 The correspondence between the two works is striking: Géricault’s face seems somehow both his and someone else’s. Through the portrait of the artist confined to his bed, Cogniet sought to perpetuate the image of a delicately featured youth, beyond sickness and death. With subtlety and delicacy, he took note of the emaciated cheeks, the hollow eye sockets, the beard covering the lower part of the face, and the covers enveloping Géricault’s body. However, Cogniet’s greatest achievement here probably lies in the intense and grieving expression of the eyes, which seem to appeal directly to the beholder’s. The shirt collar, the beret and the necktie, again featured in the Orléans drawing,6 would inspire Jean de Saint-Jorre7 to comment on Géricault’s attire as he readied himself to die as a dandy, in keeping with his lifelong fastidiousness. The use of the lithographic pencil here allowed the artist to reproduce with great accuracy the spontaneity and the grain of a drawing; furthermore, it was one of Géricault’s favourite techniques, and he was among the first to apply it, in particular during his English period.8

The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans also holds the last portrait that Cogniet drew of Géricault on his deathbed.9 In this far more realistic image, the painter is shown with his mouth half-open, his eyes closed, wearing a cap. Alongside the two Orléans drawings, our portrait should be interpreted as part of a posthumous and romantic construction of the image of the artist carried off prematurely at the acme of a promising career. A similar intention also transpires in The Death of Géricault painted by another great friend, Ary Scheffer (1795-1858).10 Several years after Géricault’s death, his mortuary mask became the object of an authentic veneration on behalf of artists, who frequently hung a copy of it in their studios.11 MNG

1Notably in a sketch representing the youth’s delicate features, full face and in profile (pencil; 80 × 80 mm); Léon Cogniet, Paris (Galerie de Bayser) 2013, no. 8.

2Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet, Théodore Géricault Sick, Sitting up in his Bed, 1823, in a private collection (pencil; 217 × 167 mm); and Alexandre (or Louis-Frédéric?) Corréard, Portrait of Géricault Sick, 1823-1824, in Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. no. D.1963.3 (oil on canvas; 375 × 235 mm); see Gregor Wedekind and Max Hollein (eds.), Géricault. Images of Life and Death, exh. cat., Frankfurt am Main (Schirn Kunsthalle) and Ghent (Museum voor Schone Kunsten) 2013, respectively p. 145, cat. no. 121 and p. 146, cat. no. 123.

3There is one copy, without a monogram, in Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. no. 876.9.152; see Clémence Raynaud (ed.), Le dernier portrait, exh. cat., Paris (Musée d’Orsay) 2002, cat. no. 28.

4Dated 1824, inv. no. 518 (pencil, with stumping; 253 × 185 mm. Monogrammed, lower left: “L.C.”. Inscribed, lower right: “Par Léon Cogniet / (a précédé la lithographie)”); see Jacques Foucart and David Ojalvo, Léon Cogniet 1794-1880, exh. cat., Orléans (Musée des Beaux-Arts) 1990, cat. no. 50, repr. Moreover, the Fondation Custodia holds a proof print of the related lithograph, inv. no. 2011-P.48.

5Ibid., cat. no. 50.

6And that appear again in a self-portrait by Géricault, dated 1818-19, in London, private collection (pen and brown ink; 110 × 105 mm); see Wedekind and Hollein 2013, op. cit. (note 2), cat. no. 119, repr.

7Jean de Saint-Jorre, Autour de Géricault: exposition de l’office départemental d’action culturelle de la Manche, exh. cat., Saint-Lô (Maison du Département) 1990, cat. no. 2.

8Géricault also often drew on lithographic cardboards, light and easy to carry, that he took with him across the Channel; see Barthélémy Jobert, ‘Londres dans l’imaginaire des artistes français’, in Marina Vanci-Perahim (ed.), Atlas et les territoires du regard. Le géographique de l’histoire de l’art (XIXe et XXe siècles), proceedings of the international conference organised by the Centre Universitaire de Recherche en Histoire de l’Art Contemporain (CIRHAC-Paris 1) on 25-27 March 2004, Paris 2006, p. 119.

9Dated 1824, inv. no. 508 (pencil, heightened with white chalk; 289 × 310 mm); see Foucart and Ojalvo 1990, op. cit. (note 4), cat. no. 51, repr. It was also reproduced in a lithograph.

10Dated 1824, Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. no. MI 209 (oil on canvas; 360 × 460 mm); see Isabelle Compin and Anne Roquebert, Catalogue sommaire illustré des peintures du musée du Louvre et du musée d’Orsay, École Française, 5 vols., Paris 1979-19860, vol. 4, p. 205; and http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=15361&langue=fruvre.fr.

11Bruno Chenique, ‘Le masque de Géricault ou la folle mémoire d’un culte sentimental et nauséabond’, in Raynaud 2002, op. cit. (note 3), p. 164 and note 65.