Géricault January 6, 1992
“No nineteenth-century artist of Gericault’s stature remains as enigmatic; no oeuvre, despite its small size, so rife with problems of attribution; no chronology, despite its too-brief span, so inadequately documented.” The splendid exhibition organized this autumn at the Grand Palais in Paris for the bicentennial of Géricault’s birth challenged so many old assumptions that it raised more questions than it answered, but it made clearer than ever before that Géricault is a great artist, a true harbinger of the modern spirit.
Apart from his birth in Rouen in 1791 to a well-to-do family of lawyers and business people, and his death in January 1824, it has always been difficult to establish even simple facts about Géricault. When the contents of his studio were sold at auction a few months after his death, a brief introduction to the catalog began as follows:
All our attempts to obtain information on the life and works of Géricault having failed, we shall content ourselves with repeating the few facts that mark the main epochs of his all too brief existence in the world of the arts.
The preface has little more to report than the dates of the three large paintings exhibited at the Salons of 1812, 1814, and 1819: respectively, the Charging Chasseur, the Wounded Cuirassier, and The Raft of the Medusa.
The last picture, painted in 1818 when he was twenty-seven, made Géricault famous. The Medusa had foundered off the coast of Senegal in 1816, and since there were not enough lifeboats, a raft had been built and a hundred and fifty people put on it. The lifeboats were to pull it ashore, but there was a storm, the officers panicked, cut the ropes, and left the raft to drift. After thirteen days of horrific ordeal fifteen survivors were finally rescued. The incompetent commanding officer had been appointed for his loyalty to the Bourbon regime, and the incident became a political scandal which was raging in 1818 when Géricault chose it as the subject of his painting. The enormous picture shows the moment when the brig that rescued the survivors was first sighted. The painting has unsurpassed dramatic power and was enormously controversial, not only because it broke artistic conventions but also because its subject was so explosive.
Géricault became widely known, but almost exclusively as the author of The Raft. Why should it have been so hard to find out anything about him? Partly because there was a secret in his life. He had an incestuous affair with his maternal uncle’s young wife, Alexandrine Caruel, and in 1818 she bore Géricault a son, who was delivered in secret, declared to be of unknown parents, and sent off to be nursed in the country. Alexandrine lived secluded in her country estate until 1875. Géricault’s father died shortly after his son and the Caruel family was not interested in preserving the artist’s memory. Ironically, however, M. Caruel, who had made himself very rich, obtained the right to …