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The Passions of Géricault

Géricault: His Life and Work

by Lorenz E.A. Eitner
Cornell University Press, 376 pp., $85.00

Géricault was passionate about horses, passionate about art, passionate by temperament. He was the archetypal Romantic artist not only in his work, but also in his life. Three years younger than Byron, he died in the same year, 1824, after a feverish life. Like Byron he had a desperate and scandalous love affair with a near relative, and the result, as in Byron’s case, was an illegitimate child. Géricault’s lover, the young wife of his uncle, had to be smuggled off to a country house and hidden there. Géricault remains fascinating today. In 1974 an anonymous donor gave the Guggenheim Museum a drawing by William Baziotes “in memory of the beautiful and tormented Géricault.”

Géricault was born in Rouen in 1791 to an affluent family rising in the middle class; his parents moved to Paris when he was four. He received the normal education of a middle-class child and attended the lycée with no enthusiasm. He already had two devouring interests, art and riding. The death of his mother in 1808 left him with enough money to live on. He went to study with Carle Vernet, known largely as a fashionable painter of sporting subjects. In 1810 Géricault left Vernet for a more rigorous training in the studio of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, a very distinguished neoclassical painter and a popular teacher. He stayed only about six months, but he remained on friendly terms with the master and visited the studio regularly for several years while working independently.

In 1812 he tried his chances at the Salon with a large canvas, the Equestrian Portrait of M.D., later known as The Charging Chasseur (Louvre) and met with a fair amount of success. The picture was exhibited again in 1814, under the new title, along with The Wounded Cuirassier (Louvre), which was ignored or dismissed by the critics. In 1816 he competed for the Prix de Rome, but was eliminated in the semifinals; he decided, however, to go to Italy at his own expense and arrived there in the fall.

His main project in Rome was a remarkable one by prevailing standards: he planned a monumental painting showing the race of riderless wild horses through the Corso that was held each year as a popular entertainment during Carnival. As Lorenz Eitner argues in his new book, Géricault abandoned the painting before the summer of 1817, not, as was previously thought, because he suddenly left Rome in the fall. Perhaps he realized that the work would not be understood at a time when a large picture had to be justified by its historical subject or by some grand allegorical theme.

Back in Paris in the fall, Géricault prepared for the next Salon, to be held in 1819. He finally chose as the subject of a large painting a recent event. La Méduse, a government ship, had foundered off the coast of Africa. Since there were not enough lifeboats, 150 people were left to drift on an improvised raft. After thirteen days of horror, fifteen survivors were rescued. The shipwreck created a political scandal, since the government had given the incompetent captain his commission for his loyalty to the Bourbons.

If The Raft of the “Medusa” was not an unmitigated success it attracted a great deal of attention, and it remains Géricault’s best-known picture. Eitner calls attention to the sheer “nerve and muscle” of the painting, its “direct appeal to the viewer’s participation in its physical drama.” This physicality would later appeal to realist painters like Courbet, and many other artists found inspiration in its expressive energy.

In April 1820 Géricault sailed to England where he arranged a lucrative exhibition of his great work. He remained in London with some interruptions until December 1821, painting mostly equestrian subjects like the famous Epsom Downs Derby (Louvre) and publishing lithographs. He spent the last two years of his life in Paris, burdened by failing health and by financial worries owing to bad investments. He died at thirty-two, in January 1824, surrounded by a swarm of younger painters who literally worshiped him: his death mask became a standard prop of the studios of Romantic artists.

Géricault was described by those who knew him as a dashing young man, a dandy in fact, but at the same time shy and diffident. Today he would be called manic-depressive. Completing The Raft of the “Medusa” was a fiercely strenuous effort for him, demanding a long period of sustained enthusiasm and intense belief in his powers. He had other periods of deep, suicidal depression. Even during his last illness Géricault wavered between inspired moments when he still envisaged grand projects—paintings of heroic proportions on such themes as the slave trade or the opening of the doors of the Inquisition in Spain—and other moments of complete dejection and self-doubt. “If only I had painted five pictures,” he is reported to have complained, “but I have done nothing, absolutely nothing.”

There are still critics who think of Géricault’s oeuvre as an amputated body, a great promise cut short by early death. For them his contribution rests essentially on the very few pictures he exhibited and another handful of “finished” works. He did, indeed, have a short career, especially compared to Ingres, his elder by eleven years, who survived him for another forty-three. But even considering his early death, one must admit that Géricault exhibited very little: a total of only four pictures at the Salons of 1812, 1814, and 1819, while the twenty-nine-year-old Delacroix showed twelve at the exhibition of 1827 alone. On the other hand, Géricault produced a mass of painted studies, sketches, watercolors, and drawings that have great importance for later art precisely because they often escape traditional categories and blur the distinction between the sketch and the finished work.

The man who painted The Raft of the “Medusa,” one of the grandest paintings in the Louvre, could never have become a forgotten or even neglected artist. Nevertheless, during the last hundred years Géricault was in the shadow of his young friend Delacroix, appearing as a forerunner, a John the Baptist to the Messiah of Romantic painting. Today, however, as Eitner eloquently concludes, “the huge figure of Géricault lies at the threshold of modern art, a fragment of a still larger, enigmatic design.” For some thirty years Eitner’s studies have done more than anyone else’s to refine our appreciation of Géricault. This book is the summation of his efforts.

The recent shift in the balance between Géricault and Delacroix also corresponds to a change in our understanding of Romanticism. For a long time French Romanticism seemed out of phase with the movement in Germany and in England. Most critics and historians agreed that around 1800 Romanticism was fully developed in England in the work of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and in Germany in the work of Novalis and the Schlegel brothers. But in France the arrival of Victor Hugo during the 1820s was so overwhelming that later critics date the appearance of Romanticism from that time. As Mallarmé put it: “Hugo, through his mysterious labor, reduced all prose—philosophy, eloquence, or history—to verse, and since he was himself verse in person, he took away almost the right to express themselves from all those who thought, discoursed, or narrated.” It was also during the 1820s that the word “romanticism” became, in France, identified with modern art.

Delacroix did not have Hugo’s astonishing energy and power, but the two belong to the same generation (the generation of Keats and Shelley), and Delacroix was perceived as the Victor Hugo of painting. His name became almost synonymous with Romantic art. While in Germany Philip Otto Runge, who died in 1810, was considered a Romantic artist, French critics did not recognize any French paintings as fully Romantic until Delacroix’s Bark of Dante of 1822 and his Massacre of Chios of 1824.

This apparent difference in timing was felt so strongly that some writers, like Arthur Lovejoy, felt the various Romantic movements were almost independent national phenomena. Today a more European viewpoint gives much greater coherence to the large fermentation of ideas that produced the Romantic movement. Chateaubriand, whose famous novel Atala appeared in 1801, and Sénancour, whose Obermann came out in 1804, for example, no longer appear as transitional figures, forerunners of Victor Hugo and his generation, but as contemporaries of Coleridge and Novalis. Eitner, who has a deep knowledge of German Romanticism as well as of French art, is able to rectify our perspective and put Géricault at the center of the movement.

Whoever writes on Géricault today has both a great advantage and a formidable obstacle: the monograph by Charles Clément, published in 1867. One of the best books ever written on any artist, it was produced in circumstances that make it more or less unsurpassable. Around 1850 Géricault’s reputation was immense, especially among the left wing. This was largely because, during the last days of Louis Philippe’s rule, Jules Michelet had devoted one of his lectures at the Collège de France to Géricault and presented him not just as a great artist, but as a national hero, a symbol of free France in the face of tyranny. Michelet was prevented from delivering his lectures by the government, but he published them after the Revolution of 1848. That they had previously been censored gave them added prestige. Moreover, the realist art of Courbet appearing at the same time recalled Géricault’s powerful sense of physical presence.

In this climate of exalted devotion, Clément brought to Géricault the kind of reverence that one can have only for a great master of the past, while at the same time he was still able to interview people who had been closely associated with the painter. Clément was wonderfully energetic in his search of the evidence and superbly astute in using it. He produced a biography that is also a critical survey of the works, and a catalog that still remains largely authoritative.

Very little information about Géricault’s life has emerged since Clément’s monograph. The major contribution of recent years has been the details of Géricault’s great love affair and its suppression by his family. Thanks to the publication of family papers we now know the story in all its sordid particulars. Not only was Géricault’s mistress his maternal aunt but her husband had been particularly kind to Géricault. Clément knew what had happened and he knew the identity of the woman whom Géricault had loved—then still alive—but he was not allowed to reveal it. His account has an air of looming mystery more intriguing perhaps than the actual facts of the matter.

The other important piece of recent evidence was the rediscovery of bills from the store where Géricault bought his art supplies. This unexpectedly revealing document makes the chronology of his work on the Raft more precise and also clarifies his complicated activities during 1820–1821. It seems that Géricault paid a visit to Paris during the time he was thought to have stayed in London. Add to this a few details about Géricault’s trip to Italy in 1817, and we have all the fresh biographical information that has emerged since Clément. Although Eitner takes full advantage of recent findings, they hardly change the physiognomy of Géricault’s life.

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