An image of The boxers

Théodore Géricault

(France 26 Sep 1791 – 26 Jan 1824)

The boxers

Location
Not on display
Further information

The outstanding examples of early lithography are the works of Géricault and Eugène Delacroix, the towering figures of French Romanticism. The artists briefly met each other in 1815 or 1816 in the studio of their master, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, himself a pupil of the great Neo-Classicist, David. Independently of one another, they produced their first lithographs in 1817.

The circumstances surrounding Géricault’s introduction to lithography are unclear, but he appears to have been swept up in an enthusiasm for the new medium that affected other members of his circle, such as Antoine-Jean Gros and Carle and Horace Vernet. More than any other graphic convention, lithography is associated with the flowering of Romanticism in France. It was invented in 1798 in Munich as an inexpensive means of printing musical scores and maps, but it took some years before its commercial application was broadened and artists started making original drawings on slabs of prepared limestone.

Lithography offered draughtsmen a quicker and more direct technique than etching or engraving on copper, and it was appreciated for its capacity to replicate exactly the soft textures and tonal finesse of pencil and chalk drawings, as well as the precision of pen and ink. Lithography received its strongest impetus when the printer Godefroy Engelmann set up his press in the French capital in 1816. Other lithographic printing workshops were soon established, such as that of Charles Motte, the publisher of this lithograph. New prints suddenly began to pour into the market, and by the 1820s lithography had well and truly arrived.

Before this period Géricault had already created the handful of prints now regarded as lithography’s first masterpieces. These reveal an imagination stirred by genuine, concrete experience and depict poignant themes taken from the Napoleonic Wars. To these years also belongs his celebrated lithograph The boxers, showing a bout staged in the open air before a circle of male spectators. The protagonists, one black, one white, stand firm, stripped to the waist, muscles flexed with bare fists raised and ready.

Géricault made numerous pencil sketches of boxers in different positions: a drawing in the Art Institute of Chicago shows seven pairs of boxers jotted down in rapid succession on a small sheet of paper. In the final lithograph Géricault fashioned the composition into something grander, bolder and daringly stylised: the powerful combatants are now symmetrically posed like mirrored reflections of each other, their legs crossing to form two intersecting triangles. Black and white are positioned with equal dominance, and there is no hint of a winner or loser.

To heighten the pictorial impact of the print, Géricault accentuated the contrasts between the two figures, not only by their poses and the colour of their skin, but by a deft combination of lithographic drawing techniques: the torso of the black boxer is modelled with incisive pen and ink lines, while his lower body, breeches and leather shoes are rendered with soft crayon. The technique is reversed for the white boxer.

Virile strength and extreme forms of action fascinated Géricault and his muscular figures are almost always involved in some aspect of violent encounter. A keen sportsman, Géricault would have enjoyed the spectacle and all-male camaraderie of the amateur boxing matches at Horace Vernet’s Paris studio, near his own, on the rue des Martyrs.

Boxing, in the early 19th century, was considered an English sport par excellence. Across the Channel, pugilistic demonstrations became popular during the Bourbon Restoration as Anglomania – that infatuation with all things British – swept through Parisian society. Although the subject of boxers was an unusual one for serious art, Géricault’s exposure to the sudden influx of cheap and popular British sporting prints almost certainly provided the immediate inspiration for his own masterpiece.

An anonymous and crudely executed British print from 1812 records a famous match for the international heavy- weight title between the African-American champion fighter from Virginia, Tom Molineaux, and the English champion, Tom Cribb. The arrangement of the boxers corresponds closely to that adopted by Géricault. His powerful image, by contrast, avoids the specific. The individual identities of his boxers remain anonymous. Rather, they stand – on equal footing – for idealised racial stereotypes.

While resolutely modern in its subject matter, the lithograph nonetheless pays homage to the classical tradition, which Géricault revered: the pose of the reclining figure on the left recalls that of an antique river god; on the other side, the seated man with his back to the action directly quotes the Belvedere Torso, one of the most famous of all Hellenistic marbles.

Year
1818
Media
Print
Medium
lithograph
Dimensions
35.5 x 41.5 cm image; 42.4 x 59.0 cm sheet
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Credit
Parramore Purchase Fund 2004
Accession number
292.2004