Neapolitan Dance: Tarantella


Black chalk, white gouache, dark brown and reddish brown wash, on brown vellum
Inv. No. SG 3350

26.5 × 18 cm

zur  Biographie

When the young Théodore Géricault set out for Italy in the autumn of 1816, he did so without having received one of the usual Academy scholarships. During his sojourn in Rome, which lasted nearly a year, he consequently did not have to conform to the requirements of academic classical training, and he devoted his attention both to art and to the everyday hustle and bustle of the city’s streets. He may well have watched a tarantella being performed in the midst of a circle of musicians and spectators with all the exuberance shown here. But the scene merely provided the stimulus for him to produce a drawing, executed as a finished picture, in which a commonly occurring motif is given more universal validity.


This depiction of an open-air festivity with music and dancing is a carefully planned synthesis of natural-looking forms and deliberately introduced ideal ones. The arrangement of the figures in the foreground clearly echoes the circling movement of the dance. It leads from the guitarist, standing in an elevated position and leading the action, down towards the triangle player, continues via the back view of a stately figure making an expansive gesture, and then, following the gaze of the male figure seated in a classical pose, rises once again to the dancing couple, whose gyrations culminate in the round shape of the tambourine being held aloft.


The architecture in the background is also a virtual stage set constructed by the artist in which he has combined the remains of a classical portico with Corinthian pillars, a medieval campanile and an ensemble of apparently Baroque buildings. There is nothing to indicate a specific geographical location, either in the architecture of different periods – antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Baroque – or in the mountain range towering up in the distance. Rather, the scene is a capriccio that turns a folkloric motif into a maenadic Dionysian dance set in the modern era.


An essential element in the systematic unity and energy of the picture is the chiaroscuro that has been added to the linear chalk drawing. It clearly shows the artist’s feeling for plasticity and his awareness of the effect of strongly contrasting light and dark. The distribution of white gouache and brown wash creates a lively alternation of dazzling back and side light on the one hand and deep shadow on the other, conveying the atmosphere of early evening with the sun low in the sky, while also reinforcing the sense of dynamic movement.


Géricault’s drawing exhibits technical bravura and the virtuoso translation of a real-life experience into the realm of ideas. In the nineteenth-century holdings of the Department of Prints and Drawings, it thus provides an important counterbalance to the Nazarene style of drawing as practised by artists like Pforr or Cornelius.

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