Today is the birthday (1791) of Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault, a French painter and lithographer, known primarily for “The Raft of the Medusa.” He was one of the pioneers of the Romantic movement in art.
Géricault was born in Rouen and educated in the tradition of English sporting art by Carle Vernet and classical figure composition by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, a rigorous classicist who disapproved of his student’s impulsive temperament yet recognized his talent. Géricault soon left formal art traing, choosing to study instead at the Louvre, where from 1810 to 1815 he copied paintings by Rubens, Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt. During this period at the Louvre he discovered a vitality he found lacking in the prevailing school of Neoclassicism. Much of his time was spent in Versailles, where the stables of the palace were open to him, and where he gained his knowledge of the anatomy and action of horses.
Géricault’s first major work, “The Charging Chasseur,” exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1812, revealed the influence of the style of Rubens and an interest in the depiction of contemporary subject matter. This youthful success, ambitious and monumental, was followed by a change in direction: for the next several years Géricault produced a series of small studies of horses and cavalrymen. He exhibited “Wounded Cuirassier” at the Salon in 1814. The work is more labored than Chasseur and, so, less well received.
Géricault in a fit of disappointment entered the army and served for a time in the garrison of Versailles. In the nearly two years that followed the 1814 Salon, he also underwent a self-imposed study of figure construction and composition, all the while showing a personal predilection for drama and expressive force.
A trip to Florence, Rome, and Naples (1816–17), prompted in part by the desire to flee from a romantic entanglement with his aunt, ignited a fascination with Michelangelo (whose “Last Judgment” was partly inspirational for “Raft of the Medusa). Rome’s art prompted Géricault to begin work on a monumental canvas, the “Race of the Barberi Horses,” a piece of epic composition and abstracted theme that was supposedly to lead him on a new path of expressiveness. Géricault never completed the painting, and returned to France. In 1821, he painted “Epsom Derby.”
Géricault continually returned to the military themes of his early paintings, and the series of lithographs he undertook on military subjects after his return from Italy are considered some of the earliest masterworks in that medium.
His most well known, and certainly most ambitious, work is “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818–1819), which depicts the aftermath of a contemporary French shipwreck, Meduse, in which the captain had left the crew and passengers to die. The incident became a national scandal, and Géricault’s dramatic interpretation presented a contemporary tragedy on a monumental scale. The painting’s notoriety stemmed from its indictment of a corrupt establishment, but it also dramatized a more eternal theme, that of humanity’s struggle with nature. It excited the imagination of the young Eugène Delacroix, who posed for one of the dying figures.
The classical depiction of the figures and structure of the composition stand in contrast to the turbulence of the subject, so that the painting constitutes an important bridge between neo-classicism and romanticism. It fuses many influences: the “Last Judgment” of Michelangelo, the monumental approach to contemporary events by Antoine-Jean Gros, figure groupings by Henry Fuseli, and possibly the painting “Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley.
The painting ignited political controversy when first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1819; it then traveled to England in 1820, accompanied by Géricault himself, where it received considerable praise. While in London, Géricault saw urban poverty, made drawings of his impressions, and published lithographs based on these observations which were free of sentimentality.
After his return to France in 1821, Géricault was inspired to paint a series of ten portraits of the insane, the patients of a friend, Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatric medicine, with each subject exhibiting a different affliction. There are five remaining portraits from the series, including “Insane Woman.” The paintings are noteworthy for their open style, expressive realism, and for their documenting of the psychological discomfort of individuals, made all the more poignant by the history of insanity in Géricault’s family, as well as the artist’s own fragile mental health.
His observations of the human subject were not confined to the living, for some remarkable still-lifes—painted studies of severed heads and limbs—have also been ascribed to him. Géricault’s last efforts were directed toward preliminary studies for several epic compositions, including the “Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition” and the “African Slave Trade.” The preparatory drawings suggest works of great ambition, but Géricault’s waning health intervened. Weakened by riding accidents and chronic tubercular infection, Géricault died in Paris in 1824 after a long period of suffering. His bronze figure reclines, brush in hand, on his tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, above a low-relief panel of “The Raft of the Medusa.”
Some years ago, not long after my wife’s death, I spent 2 full days in the Louvre with my son – a magical time. To me it was both exciting and depressing. For a number of years I had taught a course on world history with numerous lectures on famous paintings. We endured the crush of people around the Mona Lisa – “the most famous painting in the world” – and the Venus de Milo, partly out of a sense of obligation, and partly to take in the spectacle of the crowds. Soon we left the mob scene and headed for the upper rooms. It was overwhelming. There was room after room of paintings, many of which I had lectured on. There on the third floor, I think (memory is vague), was a room dominated by “The Raft of the Medusa,” and it was completely empty. It was hard for me to take in the fact that a painting that had once stunned Paris and London was now totally ignored. Such is fame.
I have chosen caneton à la presse (pressed duck) for my recipe today for several reasons. It is a Parisian specialty but is made with duck from Rouen, combining a tribute to Géricault’s birthplace, and his home for many years. I first came across pressed duck as a budding cook in Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World, still one of my most valued cookbooks. It was once an extremely popular and elegant dish, but now it is hard to find except at its birthplace, the Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris. It consists of various parts of a duck served in a sauce of its blood and bone marrow, which is extracted by way of a special silver press. This video, professionally produced by The Guardian, tells you all you need to know – i.e. that the process is grisly, elegant, complex, and very expensive. I doubt that I will ever try it. In certain ways, mostly the expense and hoopla, it offends my sensibilities. But video is cheap.