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Artists Théodore Géricault
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Théodore Géricault

French Painter

Movement: Romanticism

Born: September 26, 1791 - Rouen, France

Died: January 26, 1824 - Paris, France

Théodore Géricault Timeline

Quotes

"Now I wanted and get constantly lost. It is in vain that I seek to hold on to something; nothing is solid, everything escapes me, everything deceives me. Our hopes and our remains are, down here, only vain chimeras, and our successes mere ghosts that we think we have grasped. If there is something certain for us on earth, it is our sufferings. Suffering is real, pleasures are only imaginary."
Théodore Géricault
"With the brush we merely tint, while the imagination alone produces color."
Théodore Géricault
"Is it not dangerous to have students study together for years, copying the same models and approximately the same path?"
Théodore Géricault

"The truly gifted individual does not fear obstacles, because he knows that he can surmount them; indeed they often are an additional asset; the fever they are able to excite in his soul is not lost; it even often becomes the cause of the most astonishing productions."

Synopsis

Géricault's short career had a huge impact on the history of modern art and the evolution of French nineteenth century painting in particular. His radical choice of subjects taken from contemporary life, his fusion of classical forms with an atmospheric, painterly style, his passion for horses, his attraction to sublime and horrific subjects, and his compassion for the weak and vulnerable in society make him a singularly complex artist, but one who helped set the path for Romanticism's emphasis on emotion and subjectivity. His most famous work, The Raft of the Medusa, was a watershed moment in the history of modern art, as it married the immediacy of current events and an eyewitness sensibility with the traditional, monumental format of a grand Salon painting. Much of Gericault's work relied on keen observation, social awareness and at times a politically engaged view of the world around him. Indeed, a unique combination of realism and raw emotion can be seen in many of his works, including the late series of monomaniacs and his earlier "portraits" of guillotined heads.

Key Ideas

Gericault's art was utterly contemporary in its attention to current events and the realities of the human condition. He depicted dramatic scenes from real life on a monumental scale and found inspiration as a draughtsman in the most humble subjects. This can be seen in his colossal canvas, The Raft of the Medusa, his lithographs of London's poor and his late portraits of the criminally insane.
Though he absorbed the lessons of the Old Masters - Michelangelo was particularly important - Géricault's use of brisk, energetic brushstrokes and contrasting light effects created atmospheric scenes which broke free from the refined Néoclassical style of painting.
Much of Gericault's art typifies what we now think of as Romantic, with its attention to the exotic, the emotional, and the sublime. This can be seen in part as a reaction to the earlier Neoclassicism of David and Ingres, which embodied Enlightenment values of order and reason. With Gericault, the individual artist's subjective, emotional response is what counts, a concept that would carry forward into the twentieth century.

Most Important Art

Théodore Géricault Famous Art

The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19)

The epic painting The Raft of the Medusa features a gruesome mass of figures afloat at sea, some dead, some struggling for life, in a tangled mass positioned on a crudely-made raft. The only African figure on the raft waves a cloth at the top of a pile of a few men who are struggling to get the attention of a ship in the distance (located on the far right of the horizon line). The sail of the raft is billowing in the wind while being tossed about a choppy ocean beneath a stormy sky. Géricault paid great attention to the details in this work. He even sketched severed body parts in order to make the work as authentic as possible.

The subject depicted is the artist's dramatic interpretation of the events beginning on July 2, 1816, when a French navy frigate crashed on its way the create colonies in West Africa. The appointed governor of the colony and the top ranking officers in the party left on the ship's six lifeboats leaving the remaining 147 passengers to be crowded onto a hastily made raft. When the raft proved too cumbersome, in a horrific act of cowardice and fear, the ship's leader cut the ropes to the raft. Left to fend for themselves the passengers eventually resorted to cannibalism. When rescued thirteen days later by a passing British ship, only fifteen men were left alive, of whom five died before they were able to reach land. When the public learned of this, it became an international tragedy and a searing indictment of the current French government. The decision to paint a scene from contemporary history - one that was utterly of the moment - brought instant attention to this work, particularly as Gericault translated it in a manner befitting classical history painting (large-scale, with heroic and tragic elements). The painting shocked the public and divided critics at the 1819 Salon. Nonetheless, its powerful subject matter and dramatic style attracted great attention to the artist, who was subsequently given the opportunity to exhibit The Raft in London and Dublin.

This work is a key example of Romantic painting. In creating the work Géricault showed a complexity of composition and an almost unsettling portrayal of reality that differed from anything that had been seen before. Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830) borrows heavily from the style and composition while contemporary artists, including Frank Stella, Peter Saul, and Jeff Koons, have taken direct inspiration from this work, which has achieved the status of an artistic icon.
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Théodore Géricault Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood and Education

Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault was the only child of wealthy, conservative parents. His father was a lawyer and his mother's family were tobacco growers. When he was four his family moved to Paris, which allowed Géricault to be educated in the most prestigious schools. At age fifteen, his drawing talent was recognized and he began to seriously study art.

Géricault's early years were not without loss. His mother died in 1808, even before he graduated from secondary school. The death of his grandmother four years later resulted in his being left a significant annuity that would allow him to live comfortably and gave him the independence to pursue his art without any financial worries.

Early Training

Géricault was fortunate to have trained with Pierre Bouillon and Carle Vernet before joining the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied under Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. To avoid his son being conscripted into the army, in 1812 Géricault's father paid for a man to go into military service in his son's stead. This postponement of duty allowed the young artist time to create his painting Charging Chasseur (1812), which brought him both recognition and an award when presented at the Salon of 1812.

Though Géricault was serious in his studies, he often tried to escape the studio to draw horses (a great passion of his). He was eventually expelled from Guérin's studio after an innocent fight with other students, during which he threw a pail of water that accidentally fell on his teacher's head.

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Théodore Géricault Biography Continues

In 1814 Géricault joined the Third Brigade of the First Company of the Royal Musketeers and served for a year. The prestige and romance associated with this position must have appealed to the artist, who was generally recognized as stylish, handsome and self-aware. He was even known to use paper curlers to make his naturally straight hair more fashionably wavy, though he kept this a secret.

As with many young artists of this period, Géricault competed for the coveted Prix de Rome, which included a paid study period in Italy. Though he failed to win the prize, he decided to travel to Italy on his own. While there he discovered the art of Michelangelo and the Baroque, both of which would have a profound influence on his own work, both in his figural representations and his dramatic use of light and dark. The trip also offered him a means of avoiding the complications of an affair he was having with his uncle's young wife.

While in Italy Géricault made it his aim to study the great masters, adopting a strict and serious program for himself. He outlined his goals thus: "To draw and paint after the great Old Masters. - Read and compose - Anatomy. Antiques - Music - Italian. [...] Concern myself only with the style of the Old Masters and compose, without going out and always alone." Nonetheless, he was also fascinated with everyday life in Italy, and followed accounts of Italian bandits, outlaws and peasants, all of which inspired some of his best works of the period. Gericault slowly began to move away from the traditional classical themes that were popular in French artmaking at the time and to adopt a more modern approach to painting that involved creating dramatic, compositionally complex narratives with a heightened use of color and light. This marks the beginning of the movement known as Romanticism, of which Géricault was an important early member.

Mature Period

Gericault's Romanticism was in full swing when he returned to Paris in 1817, as can be seen in his large-scale landscape paintings depicting the times of the day, Morning, Noon, and Evening, all completed in 1818. These works were commissioned by his uncle - the same uncle whose wife Gericault was having an affair with. When she bore an illegitimate son in August 1818 his uncle refused the works and they stayed in the artist's studio until his death. The fact that Géricault fathered a child out of wedlock would be kept a family secret until it was discovered by scholars in 1976.

During his short career Géricault created groups of works focused on particular themes, including horses, scenes of military battle and soldiers, Latin American and Spanish revolutionary figures, and finally Orientalist subjects. These themes fit well within the Romantic approach to artmaking which so influenced Géricault's contemporaries. Indeed, many of the early proponents of the Romantic style, such as Eugène Delacroix, Ary Scheffer, Paul Huet, and Léon Cognet, studied, like Géricault, in the studio of Guérin. Despite the Neoclassical influence of their master, they pioneered a style which celebrated emotions and ideals such as freedom, heroism, loss, and wonder. The emphasis on human emotions and the search for exotic or contemporary subject matter were tantamount for the poets, writers, musicians, and artists associated with the movement that was later named Romanticism.

As with his fellow Romantics, Géricault was attracted to sublime and often horrific subjects. Some have caricatured Géricault as a brooding figure who was fascinated by the sight of violence, mental illness, and death, but it is more likely that these subjects provided fertile ground to push the boundaries of his artistic expression. In her book on Gericault, Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer described the artist as "unfettered by prejudices and rules, and bent on the contemporary, horrific beauty ... of Romantic modernism."

Gericault applied his interest in macabre subjects to a contemporary subject in his most famous work, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819). Providing one of the clearest and best examples of French Romanticism, the work dealt with the highly controversial shipwreck of the French ship the Méduse (Medusa). Géricault was so focused on creating this work that it is believed that he shaved his cherished hair, knowing his vanity would prevent him from wanting to abandon his studio to appear in public.

Following the polarized reception of The Raft of the Medusa at the 1819 Salon Géricault travelled to England, where he stayed for more than a year. He briefly returned to Paris in the middle of his sojourn stopping on the way in Brussels to visit the great Neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David, who was living there in exile. Gericault suffered ill health while in England, including bouts of sciatica (exacerbated by horse riding), pneumonia, and depression (the latter may have included a failed suicide attempt). However, despite these maladies, Gericault greatly enjoyed wandering the streets of London, as he describes in a letter to a friend: "for relaxation, [I] wander about the streets which are so full of constant movement and variety that you would never leave them, I am sure." He fully immersed himself in London life, socializing with English artists, attending boxing matches, riding horses, and even maintaining a light-hearted affair with an upper-class British lady about whom he wrote: "she calls me the god of painting and she adores me as such." He was, however, also moved by the plight of the English poor and created a series of lithographs on the subject, as well as other prints featuring English country life and sporting events. Indeed, Gericault experimented widely during his career with the relatively new medium of lithography, and became quite skilled as a printmaker. Monopolizing on the French interest in English life (there was a vogue for all things English in France at the time), upon returning from London in December 1821, Géricault continued to create works with English themes that found a ready audience in France.

Later Period

Despite having achieved great artistic success, the last years of Géricault's life were troubled. After returning from London, he invested in an industrial plan to create a factory which was to produce artificially manufactured stone. The plan failed and resulted in financial hardship with the loss of economic stability he had thus far relied upon. In addition, his health continued to degrade, he fell into a depression, and he began exhibiting destructive behavior. It is perhaps this darkening of his mood which inspired his last great works, the Monomaniacs: a series of haunting portrait paintings of the mentally ill. Of the ten originally painted works, five are accounted for today. They were discovered years after the artist's death in 1863 in the attic of a house in Germany by art critic Louis Viardot.

During the last days of his life, Géricault had to have a tumor on his lower spine removed which was the result of three horse riding accidents that occurred in the spring of 1822. Forever interested in the body as a source of artistic inspiration, he refused anesthesia so that he could see, with the aid of a mirror, the elements of his body as the surgeon performed the operation. Géricault soon died of his numerous illnesses. His friend and admirer Ary Schefffer recorded the scene in his painting The Death of Géricault (1824).


Legacy

Géricault's impressive approach to artmaking helped to shape the Romantic art movement. His choice of modern subject matter, coupled with the use of complex poses and dramatic light effects inspired the work of future Romantic painters such as Eugène Delacroix and Ary Sheffer. Like them, Géricault mined the depths of the human psyche, using the physical body as the outward symbol of the (often degraded) soul. In popular perception Gericault has come to exemplify the notion of the "Romantic" artist in a broader sense. Known for his highly individualistic and courageous creative spirit, but also for the suffering and torment he endured, Gércault's somewhat sentimentalized legacy can be found in the tragic portrayal of such artists as Vincent van Gogh and Amadeo Modigliani.

The Raft of the Medusa has become one of the legendry paintings of the Modern period. Sandra Cinto, Max Ernst, Jeff Koons, Vik Muniz, Peter Saul, and Frank Stella are just some of the artists who have drawn direct inspiration from that epic painting.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Théodore Géricault
Interactive chart with Théodore Géricault's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

MichelangeloMichelangelo
CaravaggioCaravaggio
Francisco GoyaFrancisco Goya
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin
Anne-Louis Girodet

Friends

Laurent-Théodore Biett
James William Bullock
Pierre-Marie-Alexandre Dumoutier

Movements

Pre-Romanticism
NeoclassicismNeoclassicism
Théodore Géricault
Théodore Géricault
Years Worked: 1808 - 1824

Artists

Eugène DelacroixEugène Delacroix
Léon Riesener
Ary Scheffer
J.M.W. TurnerJ.M.W. Turner
Max ErnstMax Ernst

Friends

James William Bullock
Charles Clément
Théodore Lebrun
Louis Viardot

Movements

RomanticismRomanticism
RealismRealism

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
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Useful Resources on Théodore Géricault

Books

Articles

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Géricault: His Life and Work

By Lorenz E. A. Eitner

Théodore Géricault Recomended resource

By Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer

art works

Portraits of the Insane: Théodore Géricault and the Birth of the Subject of Psychotherapy

By Robert Snell

Théodore Géricault: Images of Life and Death Recomended resource

By Gregor Wedekind and Max Hollein

Marlene Dumas and the Monomaniacs of Géricault Recomended resource

Contemporary artist Marlene Dumas discusses the impact of Géricault's portraits of the insane on her own work

Théodore Géricault - Famous Painters Bios - Wiki Videos by Kinedio

Brief discussion of the life and work of Géricault

in pop culture

Gericault Film

This video clip provides a brief discussion of Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa in the format of a movie trailer utilizing clips from contemporary films

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