Threatened by a raging sea, two women cling to each other in distress while a boy waves an improvised flag, desperately calling for help. Foaming waves encircle their half-submerged rock. They could be the survivors of a shipwreck; caught by the tide, their lives are at the mercy of the elements. The women’s headdresses and boy’s trousers have been identified as mid-nineteenth-century Breton costumes, and the landscape is probably the rugged coastline of Brittany.
This painting was long thought to be by Théodore Géricault, an attribution now rejected. Yet it was no doubt executed by an artist familiar with Géricault’s poignant shipwreck pictures, including his Raft of the Medusa (Louvre, Paris). Its subject may also reflect the trend for paintings of Breton life and history that were fashionable in France in the 1850s. This picture might relate to the counter-Revolutionary insurrections that took place in Brittany in the 1790s, when republicans opposed Breton royalists. It may show royalist exiles abandoned to their chilling fate.
Under a tormented sky, surrounded by a threatening sea, two women cling to each other in distress while a young boy waves a flag or cloth, desperately calling for help. Rolling waves come roaring and foaming, encircling the half-submerged rock on which they stand precariously, signalling impending danger. They may have been ‘caught by the tide’– the title by which this painting has been known since its acquisition, or they could be survivors of a shipwreck, their lives at the mercy of the raging elements. The coast, a long stretch of jagged cliffs, is within sight, yet the boy’s gesture and his standing companion’s dramatic convulsion suggest that there is little hope. Buffeted by the wind, overwhelmed by anguish, the standing woman holds on to her headdress as she clasps her soaked skirts, their fabric stiffened and weighed down by cold seawater and salt. The clothes worn by the three figures, notably the grieving woman’s red waistcoat and boy’s trousers (bragou berr) have been identified as traditional mid-nineteenth-century Breton costumes, and the landscape is probably the rugged coastline of Brittany, possibly Finistère, its most remote western area.
Confidently executed, this unattributed painting displays its author’s evident skill and technical mastery; the picture succeeds in conveying the tragic character of the scene with great expressive force, thanks to a distinctive treatment of volumes and cool, dramatic colour harmonies. It was acquired in 1932 as a work by Théodore Géricault, and later ascribed to Thomas Couture. Both attributions are now rejected on stylistic grounds. Yet the painting is without doubt the work of an artist familiar with Géricault’s harrowing shipwreck pictures, including his Raft of the Medusa (Louvre, Paris). This scene is indebted to him in subject matter, but also in composition and atmosphere.
The picture also reflects the fashion for paintings with themes drawn from Brittany’s life, legends and history that began in France in the 1840s and continued in the following decades, when they proved popular at the Paris Salon. (Pierre-Charles Poussin’s Pardon Day in Brittany is one example.) Some paintings depicted the counter-Revolutionary insurrections that took place in that part of France in the 1790s, when republicans opposed Breton royalists, and they emphasised the royalists' struggle. Potentially imbued with historical and political undertones (the flag raised by the boy could be a royalist standard), this picture may possibly show Breton royalists exiled from their native land – its distant coast visible in the background – and abandoned to their chilling fate. Further research may reveal more details.
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