upper torso of young boy with unkempt brown hair wearing white open neck shirt looking toward his right against a background of plain brown; boy; portrait
When this Portrait of a Youth entered the collection in 1931, it was generally accepted as a work of Theodore Gericault, the progenitor of the Romantic movement in France. Some considered it to be one of the lost portraits of the insane that Gericault painted in 1822 for his friend Dr. Giorget, who was engaged in pioneering work on mental illness. Only five portraits survive from this series of at least ten. Most modern scholars have rejected the Gericault attribution, yet the quality of the painting is so evident that this orphaned youth has nearly always graced the walls of the museum. Over the years there have been numerous unconvincing attempts at attribution. A plausible attribution of the painting to Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson has been put forth by Margaret Oppenheimer, an independent art historian. She bases her thesis on careful comparison of Portrait of a Youth with other Girodet male portraits, such as the Portrait of Cathelineau (1759-1793), known as the Saint of Anjou, of 1824 (Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, Cholet). This full-length portrait was done some thirty years after Cathelin's death, so it was of necessity idealized. In most respects the head of Cathelin is very close to the Portrait of a Youth. They share a near identical turn and tilt of the head. The eyes, glancing sideways and upward, bear the same relationship to the nose and lips. Ms. Oppenheimer postulates a date in the mid-1790s for Smith's portrait, on the basis of the sitter's hairstyle--long in front and short in back, exposing the neck in defiant reference to the ubiquitous guillotine. It is possible that this early work, or one like it, served as a prototype for Girodet's idealized interpretation of Cathelin some thirty years later. A contemporary document citing a half-length life-sized study of a youth with arms crossed and head turned in three-quarter view may refer to Smith's Portrait of a Youth.
Other label: This unsigned painting confused Museum staff and scholars for decades. For years, it had been displayed next to the portrait of Madame Cabanis by Anne-Louis Girodet (shown nearby) without anyone guessing that the same artist had painted both: one a classical, tightly-painted porcelain beauty, the other a romantic, freely painted, animated youth.
The discovery in 1999 that Girodet also painted the youth was based on its close resemblance to the artist’s military portrait of Jacques Cathelineau (1824), a general who had fought for the Loyalist cause during the French Revolution (detail illustrated here). Girodet, who had no image of Cathelineau upon which to base his posthumous portrait, presumably returned to the Museum’s painting, a much earlier work, as the model for the general’s features.
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