Géricault, Théodore

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GÉRICAULT, THÉODORE (1791–1824), French painter, draftsman, lithographer, and sculptor.

Théodore-Jean-Louis-André Géricault was born into a recently enriched bourgeois family that moved from Rouen to Paris in 1796. After his mother's death in 1808 he received an annuity that allowed him to pursue an artistic career in relative financial independence despite his father's reservations. After a brief period in the studio of Carle Vernet, he began a rigorous academic training with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, but attended classes for only six months or so. His early training was marked by irregular application to the expected routine and independent efforts to educate himself by copying the established masters and drawing from life.

He sought precocious success at the Salon (a major public exhibition normally held every two years in the Louvre) in 1812 with his Charging Chasseur. The work received favorable notice from critics and garnered Géricault a gold medal. In 1814 he exhibited his Wounded Cuirassier to less favorable attention. Both paintings were prepared at the last minute and contain faults of execution that reveal the artist's erratic education, yet they also exhibit a stunning and, for the period, unexpected painterly verve and colorism. Both also show Géricault's early attraction to modern military subjects handled in the manner of Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835). The focus of the paintings on single, anonymous figures engaged in action is unusual: they are neither conventional portraits nor full-blown history paintings. Together they formed an allegory of France's recent history, the first referring to the embattled Empire of 1812 and the second to the defeated France of 1814.

Indirection and belated attempts to acquire the accepted training of a classical history painter characterized Géricault's career in the years after 1814. He competed for the Rome Prize in 1816 and, failing to win, financed his own trip to Italy. His drawings from this period reveal a fascination with sadistic violence, lust, and victimization. He was also attracted to popular life on the peninsula and sought to depict it in his newly acquired classical manner, particularly in a series of paintings devoted to the Barbieri horse race in Rome.

Upon returning to France in late 1817, Géricault began searching for a subject from contemporary life to treat in the grand manner of history painting. He eventually settled on a recent shipwreck off the West African coast that resulted from the incompetence of an aristocratic French naval officer who owed his appointment to favoritism of the restored Bourbon monarchy. After the wreck, 150 passengers and crew members were set adrift on a makeshift raft, while the officers and privileged commandeered the lifeboats. Mutiny, murder, and cannibalism quickly decimated the castaways, of whom only ten survived. Géricault pictured the moment when the survivors

on the raft attempted to attract the attention of a rescue vessel, after thirteen days adrift at sea. Like other subjects he considered, the narrative combined bizarre violence with a political scandal that reflected poorly on the Restoration government. The painting has been interpreted allegorically in a variety of ways: as about the need for humanity to join forces to save itself, about race relations (some of the figures are black) in an age of expanding colonialism, and about the state of the French social body in post-Revolutionary France. The painting plays a transitional role in the history of French painting insofar as Géricault attempted to combine the heroic nudity of classical history painting with an event drawn from contemporary life.

Though admired by many, the Raft of the Medusa (1819) did not have the public success for which Géricault had hoped. A period of deep depression ensued. Profiting from an opportunity to exhibit the Raft at William Bullock's Egyptian Hall in London, he departed for an extended stay in England. There he completed a series of lithographs focusing on common life and particularly the plight of the indigent poor.

Sometime in his later career, probably after his return to Paris in 1821, Géricault executed a series of portraits of insane people, about which very little is known for certain. Possibly ten were completed; five are known today. Each appears to portray a different form of mental illness, and they were possibly done to aid the research of a medical doctor. They are remarkable for the care with which the artist considers his humble subjects, and the incisiveness of their realism.

Géricault's behavior throughout his life was self-destructive, and in 1822 he lost a substantial part of his fortune, forcing him to paint for money for the first time in his life. In his final year, as he was slowly wasting away from the degenerative disease that killed him, Géricault expressed the belief that he had wasted his talents. He executed sketches for history paintings protesting the Inquisition and the African slave trade, part of his lifelong ambition to reinvest large-scale painting with the moral import and relevance to public debate it had had at the end of the eighteenth century, but he was unable to paint the canvases. Though little known to the general public at the time of his death, his life and work quickly became legendary within the nascent Romantic movement. Today he is revered as one of the greatest painters in the French tradition.

See alsoDelacroix, Eugène; France; Painting; Romanticism.


Bazin, Germain. Théodore Géricault: Étude critique, documents, et catalogue raisonné. Paris, 1987–1997.

École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts. Géricault: Dessins et estampes des collections de l'École des beaux-arts. Paris, 1997. Catalogue of a major show of Géricualt's prints and drawings with important essays.

Michel, Régis, ed. Géricault. 2 vols. Paris, 1996. Major scholars address various aspects of Géricault's life, art, and legacy.

Réunion des musées nationaux. Géricault. Paris, 1991. Catalogue from the major retrospective exhibition in 1991 with important essays.

David O'Brien