"With the brush we merely tint, while the imagination
alone produces colour."
A true romantic artist, Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault defines what it is to
be a Romantic. He was a child prodigy that went on to study at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Beaux-Arts, taught under Carle Vernet and Pierre Guérin. He was always
drawn to the real, studying the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti while in Italy escaping a bitter woman back in Paris and working along side artists like Jean Auguste
Ingres. In 1819 he showed one of his great works (and one of my favorites), Raft of the Medusa.
Géricault was obsessed with death. Many artists will look
for stories to illustrate that the people of their time will understand and connect
with on some level. Artists look for a hook to reflect the society and immortalize an event. The Raft of the Medusa was a story that caught the attention of many people at this time. It
was similar to more modern stories of disaster at sea. In this actual event, the French frigate the Medusa was off the coast
of Senegal on a military expedition, when it ran ashore in 1816. The ship was sinking but it did not have enough lifeboats.
In the panic, the officers managed to take all of the lifeboats, leaving the 150 crew members to fend for themselves on the
sinking Medusa. The crew tied a pile of debris together to make a raft. The raft was being pulled by one of the officer boats,
but the officers soon realized that the crew was slowing them down and feared the crew would pull themselves up and take over
their boat. So the officers cut the raft free. The over flowing raft with its 150 sailors had many problems. The men were
on the sea without food, but had a large supply of wine, leading to increased violence and would eventually lead to cannibalism.
The crew also suffered from the heat, dehydrating, and death all around them. After twelve days at sea, the crew had fifteen
living members. We see this small group as they spot another boat in their expedition, the Argus, off
on the horizon that would eventually rescue them. Very dramatic. He built the drama by using great compositional design and
studying for the perfect look to these figures. He wanted to be true to the story.
Géricault's preparation for this work took
weeks. He interviewed the survivors of the wreck. He researched at the hospitals and morgues of Paris too get the look of
newly dead flesh. He made so many drawings for the dead that it was said that his studio began to look like a morgue. He made
models of rafts to experiment with the look of it. We also see his political view come out, with the black man saving the
crew by waving down the ship. He was a big supporter of equality between the races. He wanted this work to be
absolutely huge, and it was. It was so large he knew no private buyer would ever buy it. What do you do with a painting no
one would ever buy? Well, he needed to sell it to either the state or a museum. Great idea, however, no one wanted it. Maybe
a buyer would be found if the work was more known? Once completed, Géricault put this work before the 1819 Salon judges and
was allowed into the show. It was the first time a display of fear and the Romantic made its way into the Salon. Although
it was disapproved by the public and the French government, this was a glimpse at what would be the next big thing in the
art world. After the show, he took it home and kept it in his studio. After he died it was going to be destroyed by his family,
but his friends stepped in and protected the work. One of his friends bought it and arranged for it to be placed in the Louvre.
Raft of the Medusa
1819. Oil on Canvas. 16 X 23 feet. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
This deep study would serve him well in his next project.
Also infatuated with the insane, Géricault began to paint portraits at the Hospital of the Salpêtrière in Paris in 1822. The
idea was to illustrate the ten classic types of insane as developed by psychiatrist Dr. E.J. Georget. Only five of this series
of ten still exist. The two were friends and Georget convinced Géricault to do the series of people that have various
forms of monomania so his students could see the facial charistics of their madness. The attached image, Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (also known as
Madman), is one of these studies. The other four "mentally ill" suffered from compulsive gambling,
war flashbacks, kidnapping, and obsessive envy. It was Géricault’s intent to show the close connections between the
mentally ill and the genius.
Portrait of a Kleptomaniac
1822. Oil on canvas. 24.1 X 19.8 inches. Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent,
He loved horses. After an injury while riding that went untreated
and an all around self-indulgent lifestyle, Géricault's end was near. He had poor health for about a year before
he died in Paris at the age of thirty-two. He left all of his things to another Romantic artist, Eugène Delacroix.