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 …