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Gericault in England : the lithographic print and the social world of men and horses Powell, Martha Bauder

Abstract

Images of horses appear again and again in the works of Theodore Gericault, as many art historians have observed. This preoccupation with equestrian subject matter has invariably been explained in relation to the artist's own passion for riding and well-known prowess as a horseman. Yet this attention to personal motivations fails to explain why these images so often situate horses in ambiguous, socially volatile circumstances. The complex significance of horses in early 19th century society, which I argue was implicit in the production, circulation and reception of these representations, has yet to be adequately addressed. I develop an argument that links Gericault's equestrian imagery culturally and historically to a provocative moment of social turmoil in England at the dawning of its supremacy as an industrial power. One set of lithographs forms the basis for my examination, Various Subjects Drawn from Life and on Stone, published for the English print market during one of Gericault's prolonged visits to London, in 1821. In this set of lithographs Gericault uses horses as a medium for exploring the rapid transformations that defined the political climate of the times, such as emerging concepts of nationhood and industrialization, and the resulting shifts in social identities. Gericault's visual vocabulary participates in a deeply rooted system of beliefs that surrounded horsemanship in English society, but he subverts its traditional meanings in order to address a modern sensibility. My research draws heavily from disciplines such as economic history and social history. Central to my analysis is that the images are encoded with what I call the "culture of horsemanship," a body of knowledge and opinions about horses and their management that pervaded everyday experience at a time when the lives of horses and men were linked by mutual dependence. My objective is to provide a framework for exploring how Gericault's visual strategies were directed to very specific viewerships and addressed their perceptions of current social and ideological conditions. My thesis examines how, and to what extent, these lithographs of horses participate in Gericault's appropriation of traditional modes of representing horses and their human handlers, and his transformation of them to address contemporary dilemmas of modernity and liberal values.

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