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Théodore Gericault

French, 1791 - 1824

Gericault, Jean-Louis-André-Théodore; Géricault, Théodore

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Two biographies of Théodore Gericault have been published by the National Gallery of Art in the systematic catalogue of its collection. Both are given here.

By Suzanne Glover Lindsay, in European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century, published 2000:

Gericault[1] is best known for his paintings, prints, and drawings. However, thanks to the plasticity of his forms in those media and a handful of reliefs and three-dimensional groups, he was repeatedly acclaimed for his great promise as a sculptor. That tantalizing prospect, however, was cut short by an early death at the age of thirty-two.

The artist was born in 1791 in Rouen to wealthy middle-class property owners, who moved to Paris when Gericault was about five years old. He was a poor student at the Lycée Impérial, indifferent to most subjects except drawing and classics. Gericault père opposed his son's decision to pursue artistic training. However, thanks to his uncle's subterfuge and his mother's bequest, in 1808 the boy secretly entered the studio of Carle Vernet (1758-1836), a painter of modern military and genre subjects that featured Gericault's lifelong mania, horses; he officially acknowledged Vernet as his master two years later. In February 1811, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, listed instead as a student of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833). Within a few months, Gericault quit attending his master's studio regularly, and turned to intensive study of the old masters on his own, copying paintings at the new Musée Napoléon (an early phase of the Louvre), until he was permanently expelled from the museum for assaulting a fellow student there in May 1812. He nonetheless competed regularly in the Ecole competitions.

Even during his student years, Gericault immersed himself as an artist and a citizen in the tumultuous events of the time, the twilight and aftermath of Napoleonic glory. Though he showed in only three Salons, his entries publicly stated a commitment to painting modern subjects. He made his debut in 1812 with the Equestrian Portrait of M. D*** (now known as Charging Chasseur [Musée du Louvre, Paris]), a dramatic monumental tribute to the Napoleonic epic. The painting won a gold medal but was not purchased by the state and triggered little critical discussion. Its later pendant in the Salon of 1814, the now-celebrated Wounded Cuirassier Leaving the Battle (Musée du Louvre, Paris), apparently fared no better with the critics and the new Bourbon government despite its subject, France's military losses under Napoleon. In the meantime, Gericault entered the political fray through the military. After avoiding the draft by "buying" a substitute three years before, in the spring of 1814 he joined the mounted Second Squadron of the Paris National Guard, then the First Company of Musketeers of the King that followed Louis XVIII into exile the following year, during the Hundred Days (March-July 1815), and was disbanded en route. Though accounts conflict, Gericault remained in hiding over those months, perhaps in Paris, despite Napoleon's law forbidding members of the royal household troops in or near the capital. With Louis' return to the throne in July, he resurfaced, was released from royal service that autumn, and became active in liberal artistic and military circles.

Gericault competed unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome, but went at his own expense in the fall of 1816. His Roman works reveal his profound response to the antique, the Renaissance, and modern life. In early 1817, he executed studies for a monumental painting of the climactic feature of the Roman carnival, the riderless horse races on the Corso. The many preliminary works for the unfinished project reveal Gericault's conception of the subject as an epic, timeless frieze, a modern classic on canvas that invoked ancient sculpture, Renaissance frescoes, and baroque painting. He interrupted that stay to return to Paris by autumn, where he resumed a stormy liaison with his maternal aunt that remained a secret for decades. Their union yielded a child; she gave birth to their unacknowledged son, Georges-Hippolyte, in August 1818.

For the next two years, Gericault retreated into work for his third and final submission to the Salon, a huge canvas depicting a national scandal: the hardships of the crew of the French naval frigate Medusa, abandoned to a makeshift raft by its aristocratic officers who took the lifeboats. Shown simply as A Shipwreck Scene in the Salon of 1819, the painting won the artist a gold medal and a state commission for a religious work on the subject of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Gericault was disheartened by the government's response (referring the commission to the younger Delacroix) and by the critical reaction, which he found myopic for debating the painting's possible political content instead of its artistic merits. In April 1820 he and an artist friend, Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet (1792-1845), took the painting, commonly called Raft of the Medusa (Musée du Louvre, Paris), on public tour through Britain, where it was moderately successful financially and critically. Gericault flourished artistically in Britain. His work exhibited at the Royal Academy received warm praise, and he found congenial colleagues and patrons as well as new sources of artistic inspiration. Gericault stayed in Britain for almost two years. During that fruitful period he executed watercolors, a series of horse-racing paintings (such as Epsom Downs Race, Musée du Louvre, Paris), and his important published suites in the new medium of lithography depicting other modern subjects from everyday life.

Gericault returned to Paris in December 1821 in declining health, which he aggravated by subsequent riding accidents. During those final years, the quantity of works he produced was small, but the power of the finished paintings--the ten portraits of the insane and the Lime Kiln--was compelling. Bedridden for most of 1823, he began studies for two projected modern history paintings, African Slave Trade and Opening of the Doors of the Inquisition. He died in January 1824. That autumn, after repeatedly failing while Gericault was alive, the director of the Louvre, the comte de Forbin, finally was authorized to buy Raft of the Medusa for the museum.

Gericault's accepted works in sculpture number about nine reliefs and full-in-the-round groups; seven of these have been identified as extant. Several exist in multiple versions and in various materials. Apparently, they were never publicly shown during the artist's lifetime, and were never considered fully completed. They range iconographically from classical mythological themes and equestrians to such modern subjects as wild animals and the Russian Czar Alexander. Stylistically, some display an almost Phidian austerity; others, a baroque robustness. Their relationship to Gericault's two-dimensional oeuvre is unclear. There is a general kinship of subjects and style, but no apparent direct counterparts in the various media for these works, unlike his study maquettes of animals or figures. The chronology of the sculpture is still debated. The works themselves are poorly documented. Only one has been given a date in the early literature; Charles Clément ascribed a bas-relief c. 1819. Some modern scholars place the sculpture at the beginning and end of Gericault's career as episodic exercises; others cluster them after 1816, as evidence of an increasingly fertile and tragically interrupted experimentation.

Gericault is consistently called a genius who died on the brink of full creative flower. His surviving works in every medium have always eluded categorization. Independent and undogmatic, he acted with both impetuous engagement and rigorous discipline, moved easily from classical to modern subjects, and integrated scrupulous preliminary studies with inspired invention, no matter the subject. He evolved a powerful coalition of solid draftsmanly structure, a light-catching, palpable three-dimensionality, and a painterly touch and palette. Gericault became one of the following generation's most haunting artistic paradigms, the ill-fated engaged genius. For many, his work signalled a brilliant path for the art of the future to negotiate between tradition and innovation.

[1] In contrast to traditional and very recent sources, this spelling follows Philippe Grunchec and his adherents in giving Gericault's name without an accented "e." The origin of the word is reportedly the river Ger in his native Normandy; family documents exclude the accent; and Gericault regularly signed his name without. However, apparently authentic signatures with an accent can be found on drawings and legal documents illustrated in Germain Bazin, Théodore Géricault. Etude Critique, documents et catalogue raisonné, 7 vols. and appendix, 1987-1997, 1:figs. 60-67. For arguments against the accent, see Philippe Grunchec, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Gericault, Paris, 1978: 83; Philippe Grunchec, Master Drawings by Gericault, Exh. cat. International Exhibitions Foundation, Washington, 1985: 11; and Lorenz Eitner's letter to Suzannah Fabing dated 12 September 1990 (in NGA curatorial files). Dr. Eitner's work on Gericault is included in his volume of the NGA Systemtic Catalogue devoted to early nineteenth-century French paintings, published 2000.

By Lorenz Eitner, in French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century. Part I: Before Impressionism, published 2000:

Théodore Gericault was born on 26 September 1791 in Rouen to parents of the property-owning middle class. The family moved to Paris in about 1796. On graduating from the Lycée Impérial in 1808, he declared his intention to become an artist. The death of his mother the same year brought him an annuity that assured his future independence. Against his father's wish, he apprenticed himself to Carle Vernet (1758-1836), the fashionable painter of equestrian subjects, who allowed him the freedom of his studio but seems not to have given him any formal training. Feeling the need for a more disciplined education, Gericault in 1810 moved to the studio of Pierre Guérin (1774-1833), a rigorous classicist and conscientious teacher, who made an effort to put him through the routines of the academic curriculum. Gericault proved to be a resistant pupil who kept up his attendance at Guérin's studio only for eleven months. Few traces remain of his student work. After taking amicable leave of Guérin, he continued his training as his own master, setting up his easel in the galleries of the Louvre, which were filled with the art loot of Napoleon's campaigns. Reacting against Guérin's classicism, he copied paintings by the dramatic colorists of the Renaissance and the baroque, particularly Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt, and intermittently continued these private studies of the masters until 1815, when the allies stripped the Louvre of Napoleon's booty.

At twenty-one, still a largely self-taught beginner, Gericault presented himself at the Salon of 1812, the last of Napoleon's reign, with his Charging Chasseur (Louvre), a dashing improvisation rapidly worked up into a picture of Salon format. Of provocative size, indebted to Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) and to Gericault's recent impressions of Rubens, the Chasseur held its own among the Salon's grand performances and earned him a gold medal. After this precocious success, he resumed his self-training. Renouncing the magnitude and drama of the Chasseur for the time being, he occupied himself with small-scale studies from life, of horses observed in the stables of Versailles and brightly uniformed cavalrymen.

He witnessed the fall of the empire with seeming indifference and in the summer of 1814 enlisted in the Gray Musketeers, a royalist elite cavalry, more decorative than military. For the Salon that the Bourbon government hastily organized in the autumn of 1814, he reverted to heroic dimensions and the grand style with his Wounded Cuirassier Leaving the Field of Battle (Louvre), conceived as a pendant to the Chasseur, which was shown again on this occasion. The ponderous figure of the defeated soldier, modeled in intense, dark colors, marked his return to a style of calculated monumentality and heightened expressiveness.

On Napoleon's sudden return from Elba in March 1815, Gericault rode in the escort that covered the flight of Louis XVIII. During the Hundred Days he lay in hiding. His work to this point had belonged to the current of national modernity that was one of the two main tendencies in French art of the time. After Waterloo, he seems to have concluded that this vein, inextricably involved with Napoleon's reign, was exhausted. He made an abrupt change in his work, not only abandoning modern military subjects but also radically altering his style. With sudden determination, he turned to classical themes and, in an effort to teach himself the art of composing ideal subjects, inflicted on himself the kind of academic regimen that he had earlier refused to accept from Guérin. He rehearsed the rudiments of figure construction and composition, taking his motifs from the repertoire of classicist stock types that he had shunned in his student days. But instead of becoming a conforming classicist, he ruthlessly distorted the neoclassical idiom in the act of appropriating it. Romantic in its intensity, bearing the stamp of Michelangelo rather than David, this highly personal version of classicism lent itself--better than the fluent realism of his earlier work--to resonant dramatic statements.

In March 1816 he competed for the academic Rome Prize but failed the contest and decided to undertake the voyage on his own account. His Italian stay in 1816-1817 gave him profound impressions of paintings of heroic size that further stimulated his interest in problems of style and whetted his appetite for work on the wall-filling scale. The great enterprise of his Italian year was the project of a large Race of the Barberi Horses, suggested by an event of the Roman carnival that he had witnessed in February 1817. He began by recording the start of the race as he had seen it in the Piazza del Popolo, then gradually suppressed its picturesquely Italian features and transformed the modern scene into a timeless frieze of athletes struggling with horses.

On returning to France in the fall of 1817, he abandoned this project but continued briefly in its direction with studies for a Cattle Market (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts), conceived as a monumental battle between men and beasts. At the same time, he tried subjects of a more pointed contemporary significance, such as the murder of Fualdes, a sensational crime that he proposed to represent in the "antique" style. Meanwhile his renewed interest in modern subjects led him to take up lithography, a process recently imported to France, in which he attempted to treat scenes from the Napoleonic Wars in an elevated style, without falling into the conventions of classicism. The crowning result of these various efforts was the Raft of the Medusa (Louvre), completed in 1819, after an exhausting, yearlong struggle. The enormous canvas represents an episode of a recent shipwreck that had violently aroused French public opinion. The problem that Gericault set himself in composing his picture was to combine the immediacy of an eyewitness account with the permanence and stability of monumental composition. He thus sought to unite the two antithetical aspects of his art in a grand synthesis, reconciling historical realism with heroic generality: the modern shipwreck was made to echo Michelangelo's Last Judgment. At the Salon of 1819, the Raft of the Medusa, misinterpreted as an attack on the government, met with a mainly hostile reception.

Disappointed and exhausted, Gericault "renounced the grand manner to return to the stables" (Gericault to Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, in Charles Clément, Gericault, étude biographique et critique, avec le catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre du maître, 3rd ed., Paris, 1879: 104). He went to England in 1820 to exhibit the Raft, and under English influence renewed acquaintance with that essentially anticlassical tradition of modern genre to which Carle Vernet had once introduced him. He sketched fashionable horsemen, farriers, beggars, and the caged animals in the zoological gardens in a manner that, if it lacked some of his customary force, had gained in subtlety of observation and freshness of color. A sporting picture of distinctly English inspiration, the Epsom Down Derby (Louvre), remained the only major painting of his year in Britain. When he returned to Paris in the winter of 1821, his health had begun to fail. Repeated riding accidents, aggravating a tubercular condition, brought on a painful and ultimately fatal illness. As death approached, his work regained much of its former compact strength while retaining its newly won refinement of color. In the industrial landscape of the Lime Kiln and in the series Portraits of the Insane, painted in 1822-1823, he achieved a style that was both realistic and in the highest degree expressive. In the final stages of his illness, he was overcome again by his old ambition to give epic grandeur to a scene from modern life and, though helplessly bedridden, projected immense compositions of such controversial themes as the African Slave Trade and the Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition. His death on 26 January 1824, at thirty-two, cut short these last efforts.

Artist Bibliography

Blanc, Charles. "Théodore Géricault." Histoire des peintres français au dix neuvième siècle. Paris, 1845: 405-443.
Blanc, Charles, et al. Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles: Ecole française. 14 vols. Paris, 1861-1876: essays individually paginated.
Clément, Charles. "Géricault." Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 9th yr., 22 (1 March 1867): 209-250; (1 April 1867): 321-349; (1 May 1867): 449-483.
Clément, Charles. Géricault. Etude biographique et critique. Paris, 1868.
Clément, Charles. Gericault, étude biographique et critique, avec le catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre du maître. 3rd edition. Paris, 1879.
Rosenthal, Léon. Géricault. Paris, n.d.
Eitner, Lorenz. Géricault's Raft of the Medusa. London, 1972.
Eitner, Lorenz. Charles Clément: Géricault [sic]. 1879 reprint with supplement. Paris, 1973.
Schmoll, J.A. "Géricault Sculpteur. A propos de la découverte d'une statuette en plâtre d'un moribond." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français (1973): 319-343.
Clément, Charles. Gericault, étude biographique et critique, avec lecatalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre du maître. Reprinted, with catalogue supplement by Lorenz Eitner. New York, 1974.
Berger, Klaus. Géricault and His Work. New York, 1978.
Grunchec, Philippe. Gericault, tout l'oeuvre peint. Paris, 1978.
Eitner, Lorenz. Gericault, His Life and Work. London, 1983.
Bazin, Germain. Théodore Géricault. Etude critique, documents et catalogue raisonné. 7 vols. and appendix. Paris, 1987-1997.
Géricault. Exh. cat. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1991.
Grunchec, Philippe. Gericault, tout l'oeuvre peint. Rev. ed. Paris, 1991.
Géricault Dessins & estampes des collections de l'École des Beaux-Arts. Exh. cat. Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1997.
Butler, Ruth, and Suzanne Glover Lindsay, with Alison Luchs, Douglas Lewis, Cynthia J. Mills, and Jeffrey Weidman. European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 252-253.
Eitner, Lorenz. French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 244-246.

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