What’s Hanging: ‘Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback’

‘Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback’ by Théodore Géricault hangs at the Clark. Photo courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.
‘Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback’ by Théodore Géricault hangs at the Clark. Photo courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

Among big names like David, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Goya, Renoir, Sargent and Rodin, Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback (1815-1820), a masterpiece by Théodore Géricault, is hung in one of the three new Clark exhibitions created from the museum’s permanent collection.

The exhibit, called “Face Time: Portraits and Figures in Paintings and Sculpture,” features the painting inside a gold frame, on the left wall of the one-room gallery. This work, created with oil on canvas, faces the room and while not a monumental painting, it dominates this section of the gallery. The swirling colors and contrasts suggest the Romantic nature of the painting, and the solitary figure on horseback with dark colors surrounding him gives the work a somber tone that draws the viewer into the painting.

Géricault (Sept. 26, 1791 – Jan. 26, 1824) was a profoundly influential French artist, painter and lithographer, known for The Raft of the Medusa among other works. Although he died young, he became one of the pioneers of the Romantic Movement in France. While the movement was delayed by the Neoclassical French academics, because of artists like Géricault, it began to gain traction in the country around the Napoleonic era.

In Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback, a single man on horseback dominates the picture plane. He faces away from the viewer with his face, torso and much of his horse in shadow. The figure’s uniform identifies him as a member of the hussars – a notoriously fearless cavalry – in the French army. He sits astride his horse, at a distance from the raging battle, with his trumpet at his side. Trumpeters needed visibility to sound a charge or retreat, thus his distance from the battle appears justified.

Yet, the figure seems distanced in that he is not connected to the battle, even as a surveyor. The heightened blues of the sky that surrounds the figure, rather than the oranges which contrast in emphasis of the battle below, create a clear separation between the two: between thought and action. The portrayal of the figure is still. The horse stands without any movement or proposed movement. The hussar appears pensive, with the blues filling most of the background creating a melancholy tone. His isolation and sad contemplation may well symbolize the widespread disillusionment with the French military after the fall of Napoleon in 1815.

When one compares Géricault’s Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback with a similar subject from earlier in his career, The Charging Chausser (1812), the differences are striking. The style is similar, but the treatment of the subject obviously differs. In this time of Napoleonic domination and expansion, this charging figure is full of action. In this painting of a man of battle, again with a single figure on horseback dominating the picture plane, the sky is dark and the battle is light, similar to the Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback, but the figure is swathed in light. The figure, emphasized by the contrasting color in addition to his drawn sword, is part of the battle. Also, as the figure twists backward at the same time that his horse rears up to charge forward, it is clear that the man is leading more men into battle; carnage from the battle is strewn at his feet and a little into the background. In this painting, the lines of force are strong diagonals of action, even extending to the diagonal separation between dark and light in the sky. In contrast, in the Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback, the lines of force are horizontal—this hussar stands still. The emphasis is not on the figure itself, but on the thoughts of the hussar. This Romantic concept of psychological themes, which this painting helped pioneer in France, is meant to portray the loss of military prowess of the French.

In the strong contrast of the complementary orange and blue on the color wheel, Géricault creates a Romantic emotion in the background of the scene. The stillness of the figure largely in shadow and separated from the battle with horizontal lines of force focuses the attention on the psychology of the hussar. These elements together act, like the Raft of the Medusa, as an indictment of the corrupt establishment in power in France during this time. In this political commentary, all these elements come together in a striking display of Géricault’s skill and Romantic themes that would grow in France throughout this century.