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Mysteries of a Modern Painter

Géricault January 6, 1992

An exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, October 10, 1991 to

Géricault

catalog of the exhibition by Régis Michel, by Sylvain Laveissière, by Bruno Chenique
Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 409 pp., 170 fr

Géricault

by German Bazin
La Bibliotèque des Arts, Volume IV, 241 pp., 200 fr per volume

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.”1 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 use his adulterous wife’s noble name, and became the Baron Caruel de Saint-Martin.

Only recently, and almost by chance, have the facts of the case and some details about the son’s life come to light. The “child of love” had a shadowy existence, dominated by the memory of the famous father from whom he had been kept apart. His given names were Georges-Hippolyte, but his father’s friends called him Théodore like his father, and he had the satisfaction of getting official permission to call himself Géricault. He ended up in a miserable hotel room in Bayeux. Not that he was poor, for his grandfather Géricault had left him comfortably off (but had not given him his entire fortune as originally planned, since his powerful inlaws had bullied him out of it). At his death in 1882 the younger Géricault left the considerable sum of 50,000 francs so that Antoine Etex, the sculptor who did most of the reliefs on the Arch of Triumph, could complete his monument to Géricault at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Most of the artist’s works also disappeared from view. For thirty years after his death only the three large exhibition pictures were known to the public. Jules Michelet, who saw Géricault as a national hero and wrote briefly but incisively about his works, fulminated against the greed of private collectors who hoarded what, he felt, properly belonged to “le peuple.” Little by little the paintings reached the public. But even today Géricault is often thought of as the painter of one picture: The Raft of the Medusa.

The first attempt at a systematic study of his work was made by the French critic Charles Clément in the 1860s, when Géricault was much admired but little was known about him. Clément, an art critic with philosophical training, was a man of great ability and energy; he talked to people who had known Géricault, and tracked down enough of his works to compile a catalog that is still authoritative (perhaps too authoritative). No modern artist had until then received such a careful “scientific” treatment. “I tremble as I begin this study”—these opening words give a tone of awe to Clément’s account of “the greatest artist of our times.” The book’s cogent organization and argument and the confident voice of the narrator have combined to make it a sort of gospel. Works by Géricault that had escaped Clément turned up and many more were attributed to him with little reason. New archival documents also emerged. But all this seemed to supplement Clément, not to supersede him.

Only recently have scholars, especially the Louvre’s Régis Michel, who was largely responsible for the Paris exhibition, attempted to challenge Clément’s authority, to assess his sources, and to examine the ideological assumptions of his study. The catalog of the exhibition, for example, provides the first full transcript of the recollections of Géricault by Montfort, a young painter who frequented Géricault’s studio from 1817 until his death. But Montfort was in his teens at the time and he set down his recollections forty years later. Since he was Clément’s principal informant, it is very useful to see how the raw material he provided, often rather chaotic, was incorporated into a coherent narrative.

Today, three major accounts of Géricault’s work, all still more or less based on Charles Clément’s, compete with one another. The dean of Géricault studies, Lorenz Eitner, emeritus professor of Stanford, produced his magnum opus in 1983, Géricault: His Life and Work.2 A revised French edition (in an excellent translation but with fewer illustrations) has appeared for the bicentennial. Some works that have reappeared recently, like the exquisite portrait of Mme. Bro, the wife of Géricault’s friend and landlord, are now included in the book, but the revisions are mostly in the footnotes.

In 1978 Philippe Grunchec provided a new catalog of the paintings in which many works were questioned and some rejected, almost always rightly. In fact, this first attempt to make a new systematic survey of the paintings is still too lenient. Some works are reproduced for the first time, in particular an important sketch for The Raft that had disappeared since it was first described by Clément, and the astonishing double portrait of Alfred Dedreux and his sister Elisabeth (of which more later). A recently revised edition records the often differing opinions of other experts, and incorporates new information, but the author rarely changed his mind.

In 1987 the late Germain Bazin, formerly head of paintings at the Louvre, began to publish the first volumes of a very ambitious project, at once a critical study and a catalogue raisonné of all the works by or ever attributed to the artist. Four volumes have appeared so far. The last one, published posthumously, deals with Géricault’s trip to Italy in 1816 and 1817, before the artist’s most productive years. A note signed by Daniel Wildenstein, heir to the great art-dealing firm, assures us that Bazin has “left a fully written work” and that the Wildenstein Institute—will supervise its publication.

Bazin wanted to be exhaustive. The first volume concerns Géricault the man, his life, his character his circumstances, and consists largely of documents, many of them only tangential to the artist. Bazin has reproduced all the legal documents that could be found concerning the artist’s family, the raw material for a social and economic study. For his interpretation of Géricault’s character, he secured the help of a psychologist, a graphologist, and a “physiognomist” (but no astrologist).

The rest of the book is organized chronologically, but it is also partly thematic. In the section on the Empire period, for instance, Bazin catalogs all Géricault’s pictures with Napoleonic military subjects even if they were executed much later. The catalog also mixes together paintings, drawings, and prints. Chaotic, highly idiosyncratic, and sometimes extravagant, the book is an easy target for criticism. But it contains much useful material—previously inaccessible drawings, information on collectors, interesting paintings that were wrongly attributed to Géricault—and although Bazin’s judgment is erratic, it is refreshingly independent from scholarly traditions.

To find out what is actually known about the artist’s life, however, the nonspecialist will do well to refer directly to the admirable biographical section of the Grand Palais exhibition catalog, in which Bruno Chenique summarizes Bazin’s findings and publishes some new and important evidence. Very revealing indeed about Géricault’s volatile temper, for instance, is a letter from Napoleon’s formidable art administrator, Baron Vivant Denon, to Géricault’s teacher the neoclassical painter Guérin:

It is with much regret Monsieur, that I inform you of the decision I have found myself forced to take against one of your students Mr. Jerico whom I have forbidden forever access to the Museum [i.e., the Louvre].

The twenty-one-year-old Géricault, it turns out, had punched another student. Worse still, Géricault had previously been barred from the museum for having gotten in trouble with the guards. This was a serious matter; it meant Géricault would be unable to copy paintings in the Louvre, his principal method of self-instruction. Before the year was out, however, the young painter presented his Charging Chasseur at the Salon (the official biannual exhibition held in the Louvre), and Denon himself put Géricault up for a gold medal and complimented him on his picture.

Chenique has also, I believe, resolved a disconcerting puzzle. After the exhibition of his famous Raft of the Medusa, presented at the Salon of 1819 as Scene from a Shipwreck because the subject was politically so sensitive, Géricault obtained a commission from the government worth 6,000 francs. According to his early biographers, Géricault passed it on to Delacroix, the resulting painting being the Virgin of the Holy Heart now in the cathedral of Ajaccio in Corsica. The story seems unlikely. Could one just “pass on” such a commission? The evidence suggests that Géricault eventually turned down the commission, which was then reassigned to his friend Horace Vernet. And yet the Sacred Heart is alluded to in a letter from Géricault, and he seems in fact to have made a deal with Delacroix.

After an astute investigation, Chenique established that there had been two distinct commissions, one for 6,000 francs from the Ministry of the King’s Household, which the artist turned down, and another for only 2,400 francs awarded on January 12, 1820, from the Ministry of the Interior, for an altarpiece for the cathedral of Nantes, which Géricault asked Delacroix, seven years younger and always hard up for money, to paint. In the spring, Géricault himself asked for the size and planned height of the altarpiece and the direction from which light would come. He was also sent a sketch for the Neo-Gothic frame. Delacroix took a long time to paint it and was anxious about his money. Finally, in 1822, Géricault delivered the picture, asked the ministry for payment, and presumably passed it on, whether all or part we do not know, to Delacroix.

This story is interesting not only for what it tells about the relations between two great artists, but for the unusual glimpse it gives into the arcane workings of the arts administration. Géricault had to deliver the picture as his own. Yet it cannot have been a very close secret that he did not actually paint it. Had the picture been meant to hang in a public place in Paris rather than as church furnishing in a distant province, Géricault would surely not have acted as he did. Still one would like to know how unusual such a transaction was, and to what extent it was part of Géricault’s unconventional behavior.

One should not, however, try to reduce this puzzling artist to a left-wing stereotype. This is made clear by his willingness to enroll in the King’s Musketeers at the time of the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1814 and to follow the king on his flight to Belgium after Napoleon’s return from Elba in 1815. He did not, as some others did, stay at the king’s side after the guard had been officially disbanded, but he rejoined the Musketeers after Waterloo and only resigned in the fall of 1815. After basic training, his service may not have taken very much of his time, and Eitner is right that he could have gone on with his artistic work between the spring of 1814 and September 1815; but his enrollment shows his allegiance to the monarchy, just as his purchase of a replacement to serve in the army when he was drafted in 1811 suggests at the very least a lack of enthusiasm for the Napoleonic wars. Lamartine and Vigny also enrolled in the Musketeers; the young Romantics at that time were royalists and only turned to the left later on.

Géricault, however, must have quickly been put off by the ultras of the extreme right, and there is no question that choosing the incident of the Medusa as the subject of a major exhibition picture was not only unusual but politically subversive. The painter’s close friends at the Rue des Martyrs, including Louis Bro, who owned the house in which he lived, Horace Vernet, whose studio was close enough to be reached through back gardens, and the circle around these men were all staunch Bonapartists. But Géricault also had good friends among royalists. His political position is not easy to define; increasingly he seemed to become more concerned with social injustice and the suffering of its victims than with politics as such.

The circumstances of Géricault’s life are not in the least peripheral issues because one of the most striking aspects of his art is that it deals largely with the world he lived in. He made many copies of the Italian masters but mythology and ancient history are relatively rare in his own pictures, and except for copies of religious pictures by Titian and others, he drew almost no religious images. Nor was Géricault prepared to be a modest genre painter like Boilly, whose charming scenes of daily life were so popular. He clearly wanted to compete with such artists as David, and to become a master of “history painting” as it was then called. Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio are the masters that this largely self-taught artist wanted to learn from. Instead of attempting an imaginative recreation of the past as his predecessors had done, however, he was able to bring the power, the drama, the ethical weight of the grand tradition to contemporary images of the people and events that surrounded him.

He was also different in that he did not paint on commission. His three large exhibition paintings were done entirely on his own initiative, not only uncommissioned but unsalable. He published remarkable lithographs, his only public works after 1819, which deserve closer study than they have had. But most of the time he seems simply to have painted and drawn for himself, and occasionally for friends. That his work serves no purpose but to express the artist’s feelings and ideas is characteristically Romantic and modern.

In the absence of information about Géricault many anecdotes circulated about him are spurious although revealing about the impact of his pictures. The life of an artist is supposed to make his art more understandable, but in the case of Géricault, the pictures have often caused biographical details to be fabricated. The three huge heroic landscapes shown together in New York in 1990, and again in the Paris exhibition provide an example.3 When two of them were sold in 1903 it was said that Géricault had painted them for a friend, M. Marceau, to decorate his house at Villers-Cotterêts.

Recent research has shown this to be false, but why was the story made up in the first place? The somber paintings are disturbing in themselves—one shows the limbs of executed criminals hanging from a pole—and they seem very disconcerting when considered along with the artist’s other work. The reassuring tale of a commission for a specific house makes them appear more normal, just as the current interpretation that the landscapes are part of a set showing the different times of day (morning, noon, and evening, with one—night—missing, either never painted or lost) arbitrarily makes them conform to an established formula. As we shall see later, the “Portraits of the Insane” were provided with a similarly comforting story.4 Géricault’s works persistently challenge received ideas of what a picture should be and do. But along with the constant effort to tame what is threatening about them by fabricating anecdotes, there is also a recent tendency to recover their strangeness instead of glossing over it, and to allow his art to be as disquieting as it can be.

This was decidedly the case with the superb exhibition at the Grand Palais, the most comprehensive ever held. It took a strong stand on the nature of his art and gave a cogent view of Géricault as an innovator and even a thinker. The single volume of the two-volume catalog that has appeared so far has illustrations (of good quality), biographical material assembled by Bruno Chenique, technical entries written by Sylvain Laveissière, co-organizer of the exhibition, and brief, sometimes provocative introductions by Régis Michel to each section of the exhibition. One has to wait for the second volume to assess his argument, but it is not premature to say that the show itself and its catalog will mark a new stage in our understanding of a great artist.

The responsibility for the show was given to younger scholars who had not formerly been Géricault specialists. This was a good idea because they came to it with a fresh eye and without prejudice in a field filled with disagreement. The exhibition stressed the most inventive and extreme works of the artist, his fascination with violence, crime, punishment, and suffering. But it also revealed his sensuality with a stunning series of the voluptuous antique fantasies that he apparently drew during his stay in Italy. A small piece of sculpture represents a satyr making love to a nymph with Michelangelesque bluntness and physicality. These explicit images of sex are at once violent and ecstatic but they are not illicit, intended to be hidden like the pornographic works of Fuseli and other “serious” artists. Even Géricault’s famous picture of severed limbs, gruesome as it is, draws on classical models, and is also strangely sensuous. Géricault does not reject the classical, only the academic; in his drawings of the murder of a man called Fualdès, a sordid crime that took place in the southern town of Rodez, he transforms the local thugs into Greek athletes.

The installation at the Grand Palais was dramatic. The works were grouped according to themes, but they maintained a roughly chronological order (not unlike Bazin’s organization, but it makes more sense for an exhibition than for a catalogue raisonné). One started by seeing the painter’s academic nudes and an impressive group of his copies after the old masters. But the main accent of the lower floor was the Charging Chasseur exhibited at the Salon of 1812 when Géricault was twenty-one years old. Around it were grouped a number of his studies of horses, for which Géricault had a devouring passion, an obsession. The most surprising of these pictures is perhaps The Rumps, a painting famous through reproduction, but not shown in public since 1937. We see, arranged on three tiers, the rear ends of twenty-four horses, each with its own distinctive character, with a twenty-fifth in front view for good measure. At first one might think that these are horses lined up in a stable, but on closer view, one sees that fragmentary studies have simply been juxtaposed. The front part of the animal is often not hidden, but has not been painted—with weird effect.

At the same time, during the last years of the empire, Géricault painted many images of military life. The most extraordinary of these must be the large canvas in Munich, Artillery Train, a somber picture of horsedrawn cannons painted with astounding freedom and violence in which the soldiers on the left look as though they were ablaze. Most surprising is the amorphous, desolate space, strangely reminiscent of Goya.

Géricault’s Italian period, from 1816 to 1817, culminates in studies of a riderless horse race, a picturesque street festival that the artist witnessed in Rome during the Carnival of 1817. He never executed the monumental canvas he had apparently planned (a most unexpected project indeed), but he made several striking studies of different moments of the race, some represented directly, some transformed into an ancient classical vision. These pictures, now dispersed throughout the world, were brought together in the Grand Palais; it gave one a chance to see how the successive studies do not supersede one another as the steps toward a final version, but complement one another as contrasting visions that resisted synthesis.

A room of portraits showed an aspect of Géricault that has been neglected. Not for the most part a portraitist in the conventional sense, he nonetheless painted portraits of the children of friends that are among his most striking works, although they are not to everyone’s taste. The most important (not in the exhibition) shows, in a country landscape, Alfred Dedreux and his sister Elisabeth, the children of an architect friend. Géricault has hugely enlarged their heads; the little girl stands fiercely confronting the viewer while her brother sits rather coyly in a strange reversal of roles (in a preliminary drawing she sits lower and looks up to him in a more traditional way, and the proportions of head to body are also correctly observed). Although this disturbing image of the mystery and power of childhood, a central theme of Romanticism, was absent from the exhibition, one could see the same mood in the portrait of Louise Vernet, the daughter of Horace, also oddly enlarged, with a huge cat on her lap, staring past the viewer, while her dress has slipped off her shoulder and is pulled up just above her knee—an image of prepubescent sexuality that irresistibly recalls the work of Balthus.

Other studies of children’s heads were made not for the sitters and their families but for the artist himself as “studies”; the concentration of these pictures is entirely on mood. The painter is more interested in capturing a momentary expression than describing the distinctive features of a face. It is not surprising that critics cannot agree on the identity of many of Géricault’s sitters. He takes the portrait away from its usual social function, to record a likeness, and appropriates it for his own purposes: representing inner feeling independently of narrative and picturing emotion as an inner phenomenon rather than the result of external circumstances (as is the case with the actors in The Raft). That Géricault is the painter of the inner self is central to his romanticism. His pseudo-portraits pervade his entire career and are among his important works.

It was France herself, it was our whole society that he placed on the Raft of the Medusa,” Michelet wrote. By far Géricault’s most famous painting, this legendary and haunting image has inspired many literary works, most recently, a chapter in Julian Barnes’s History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.5 The picture itself, which is more than twenty feet long, could not be moved from the Louvre, where it is permanently on exhibition. The Grand Palais showed a large number of sketches and studies directly related to it, as well as works that are traditionally associated with the project, such as the picture of the severed limbs now in Montpellier and the equally amazing one of decapitated heads from Stockholm.

Between February 1818, when it seems he started his project of The Raft, and the opening of the Salon in August 1819 Géricault must have worked with astonishing intensity. Just painting his vast canvas would have kept him busy but in the same period he also painted several of his most original works, especially the Severed Limbs and the Two Severed Heads. According to reports that seem fairly reliable, during the work on The Raft Géricault obtained fragments of dissected bodies—arms, legs, a head—which he kept in his studio and used as models for drawings and paintings. One head in particular appears on a number of drawings from different angles, alone in a painting and again next to a woman’s head in the larger, more formal painting in Stockholm. According to Clément, the female head was not painted from an actual corpse, but from a live model, and indeed in the painting it has closed eyes, unlike the dead stare of the male head. This is clearly not just a sketch but a staged and finished work.

These strange paintings, although they are unclassifiable and surely couldn’t be exhibited at the time, were of great interest to the admiring circle of young artists who surrounded Géricault, and they were copied and even imitated. In 1985, a well-known study of a dead man’s head in the Chicago Art Institute was cleaned and revealed the signature of Champmartin, one of the painters in Géricault’s entourage. It seems likely that the signature had already been covered over in Champmartin’s studio so as to pass off the picture as a Géricault. In the exhibition the Chicago Champmartin hangs next to an authentic Géricault Severed Head, executed in staccato brushwork and almost clinically matter of fact in its gruesomeness. By comparison the Champmartin seems melodramatic and waxy in texture. How could so many of us art historians have mae such a mistake? Yet even as experienced a connoisseur as Lorenz Eitner was taken in.6

The room devoted to The Raft was highly instructive in clarifying the relation of Géricault’s painting to reality. He always painted from a model, following in this the teaching of David, but his relation to the model was not necessarily direct, just as his “studies,” like those of the severed head, could not actually be used for the Salon painting. We know, for example, that Delacroix posed for the dead figure in the center at the bottom of the composition. The twenty-year-old Delacroix was not particularly athletic; a pencil drawing in the exhibition (catalog number 206) is probably fairly close to his actual appearance, although I suspect that Géricault has given him a stronger physique. In the final painting the musculature is much more developed and it no longer looks like an adolescent body.

Géricault apparently needed the physical presence of a model while he painted to convey the palpable sense of the real that is essential to the effect of his pictures. But it was his imagination rather than faithfulness to the appearance of what was in front of him that produced this effect. He told Montfort that when he was painting the Chasseur he had a carriage horse brought to his studio every morning; he could not use it as a model but, he said, “it put horse into my head.” Obviously, he needed to put death in his head to paint The Raft. This long, extremely concentrated labor must have been an excruciating experience, and when The Raft was finished, Géricault had some kind of nervous breakdown, with paranoiac symptoms, in the autumn of 1819.

The painter spent much of 1820 and 1821 in England where The Raft was exhibited in public (bringing Géricault money). Géricault was very interested in English art, particularly in such painters as Constable and David Wilkie. Bazin absurdly claims that England had a castrating effect on the great Frenchman and reduced the author of The Raft to an amiable genre painter. But there is no question that he was deeply affected by his experience there. For one thing his technique changed, with more delicate brushwork and much greater interest in tonal values. His choice of subjects also changed. If the fancy horses of English high life fascinated him—horses always did—he was also deeply moved by the effects of the Industrial Revolution. In a set of lithographs he published with the great firm of Hulmandel, one of the main figures in the early technical development of lithography, the horses share the stage with the London poor, and the thoroughbreds are shown in contrast to the proletarian workhorses.

After his return to Paris, Géricault never worked again on a large scale, and he painted pictures of daily life that were more marketable, although I do not believe that this was owing to the artist’s new financial worries, as Eitner has maintained. Certainly ill health, the consequence of a riding accident worsened by bad medical care, was a factor.

Witnesses describe the failing artist drawing his left hand with his right, a strange regression to a youthful exercise. Three of these moving drawings were displayed at the Grand Palais, only one of which was previously known. Géricault, not even thirtythree, wasted away surrounded by his works. “What beautiful studies!” wrote Delacroix in his journal after a visit to the artist on December 30, 1823, “what firmness! what superiority! and to die next to all that, which he did in the full vigor and fire of youth, unable to move one inch on his bed without help!”

Still, the exhibition ends with a startling series of works, Géricault’s so-called “Portraits of the Insane.” In 1863 in Baden-Baden, Louis Viardot, husband of the legendary singer Pauline Viardot, discovered five previously unknown canvases portraying insane people. His account of his discovery, which was published at the time, is the only source of information we have about these pictures, although scholars have always relied on Clément’s secondary account. As Régis Michel points out, Viardot’s original statement, now reprinted in the Paris catalog, is demonstrably inaccurate in important respects, thus casting doubt on the entire story. “Géricault from his childhood,” claims Viardot, “had as a friend, and somewhat as a protector, Doctor Georget who was head doctor [médecin en chef] of the hospital la Salpêtrière….” As it happens Georget was four years younger than Géricault and was never head of the hospital. Nor did he die in 1824 at the same time as Géricault, but in 1828. It is not impossible that the two men were friends, but Georget’s name does not appear in any known source concerning Géricault before 1863.

What remains certain is that the pictures belonged to a Dr. Lachèze, once a young intern at Georget’s hospital. There were, so says Viardot, originally ten paintings belonging to Dr. Georget and sold at auction after his death, of which Lachèze bought five, while the other five went to another intern, Dr. Maréchal, who took them to Brittany where they were never heard of again. (According to Régis Michel’s research, no such auction took place.) Viardot gives a specific diagnostic description of each of the five lunatics, three men and two women, whose portraits belonged to Lachèze: “five kinds of monomania perfectly characterized,” a monomaniac of gambling (Louvre), of theft (Ghent), of kidnapping (Springfield, Massachusetts), etc. Monomania is a term coined by the famous alienist Jean Etienne Dominique Esquirol, whose theories were taken up by Georget. We may never know how much of the account is fantasy and how much fact, or why and under what circumstances Géricault painted these pictures.

Four of the five pictures were exhibited together for the first time. Although each canvas has different dimensions, they form a coherent whole and give the impression that they are part of a project, more likely Géricault’s own artistic project, in my view, than a hypothetical commission from Georget, Esquirol, or another physician for some scientific or didactic purpose. These pictures are the culmination of Géricault’s work with portraits. They have most of the trappings of portraits in that the lunatics are distinct persons and look like real people. But they are not portraits in the conventional sense; they are not made to commemorate those represented but to investigate their symptoms and make us sense their intense feelings. The cumulative effect of these meditations on mental pain and anxiety is overwhelming, more moving for us today than the more externalized and almost grandiloquent Raft of the Medusa.

A gallery was devoted to the portraits of Géricault himself. Characteristically, it is extremely difficult to form an idea of what he looked like. The most reliable document is a death mask that became a standard prop of Romantic artists’ studios. But when it was taken, the terribly emaciated painter was only a specter of himself (one month before the end Delacroix already noted in his journal: “His head is that of a dying old man [un vieillard mourant]”). A number of pictures have been called self-portraits at various times, but most of them are now rejected as inauthentic.

One of the spurious self-portraits, exhibited as Young Artist in a Studio by an unknown painter, was until recently among Géricault’s most famous works. It has become an archetypal image of the Romantic artist. Although there had been some doubt about it ever since it emerged in the collection of the painter Antoine Vollon, it was purchased by the Louvre in 1901 after Vollon’s death, and we have grown up thinking of it as central to Géricault’s work. Philippe Grunchec rejected the attribution in 1978 and most scholars agree.

Like Lorenz Eitner, I have defended the attribution, but I must confess that I find it hard to make a case for it in the light of the recent exhibition. Yet no other name has been put forward as the author of this great picture. The conception is brilliant, and there are peculiarities such as a fantastic-seeming cloudlike backdrop that would be in character for Géricault. But the rather slick execution of the main figure, the smooth rounded modeling, seem incompatible with the rest of his work. But then who painted it? It is hard to believe that shadowy figures who were part of Géricault’s entourage such as Champmartin or Cogniet were capable of producing such an impressive picture. But even if we agree that it is not authentic, it still would not have been possible without Géricault; it betrays a sensibility that owes much to him, and if an artist like Champmartin produced it, he could only have done so thanks to Géricault’s immediate inspiration. It is not impossible, as has been suggested, that Géricault had started to sketch the canvas and that it was completed after his death. In the end, we can be confident of no portrait of Géricault, whether by himself or anyone else.7

It has become a cliché that an artist describes himself in all his works, not just in self-portraits. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” said Flaubert. This kind of indirect self-representation is particularly intense with Géricault. Insofar as he was a painter of consciousness and the inner self he had to rely on self-exploration and self-projection. His obsession with horses, for instance, is not just a personal peculiarity but pervades his art. He gives these animals so much expressive power in his pictures that we can’t avoid feeling the personal engagement of the artist with them. How Géricault’s empathy often makes the horse an alter ego is particularly clear from one motif which was unfortunately left out of the exhibition, the confrontation of horse and lion. (“I start a woman and it becomes a lion,” Géricault is alleged to have said.) Géricault made three lithographs and a number of drawings that represent a lion attacking a horse or the horse, already dead, being devoured by the lion. It is hard to quarrel with Kate Spencer’s suggestion that these are deeply personal works reflecting the artist’s anxiety about sexual confrontation.8 The bust-length, full-face head of a white horse from the Louvre that so confidently engages the viewer’s gaze could easily be called Portrait of the Artist as a Young Horse. We may never know exactly what Géricault looked like, but the Paris exhibition made us feel that we know him.

  1. 1

    Gary Tinterow, Gericault’s Heroic Landscapes: The Times of Day (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990).

  2. 2

    See my review, “The Passions of Géricault,” in these pages, January 17, 1985.

  3. 3

    For full details about these pictures, see Gary Tinterow, Géricault’s Heroic Landscapes. This is the catalog of a small exhibition organized to celebrate the acquisition of one of the landscapes by the Metropolitan.

  4. 4

    Another biographical embellishment concerns The Raft. It has always been accepted as fact that Géricault added a figure at the lower right of his painting at the very last moment. The picture had been taken out of the studio and stored at the Italian Theater. There, Clément tells us, Géricault realized that the right corner was empty and brushed in an additional figure with amazing rapidity. Recently taken X-rays show that the figure was painted with the rest. Why this story? The two painted sketches of the final composition (both in the Louvre, both in the exhibition) do not have the figure in question. It is most unusual to make such a drastic change without careful preparation and a further sketch. The desire to account for this oddity and also perhaps the fact that the lower right figure “sticks out” of the composition have stimulated the biographical fantasy. In the sketches, in fact, the less conspicuous leftmost figure is also missing and Eitner has Géricault improvising both figures at the last moment, although he refers to Clément as his source. It seems that Eitner’s closer scholarly attention produced yet another fantasy.

  5. 5

    Michel Schneider, who was for a time director of music and dance at the Ministry of Culture, has published Un rêve de pierre: Le Radeau de la Méduse (Paris: Gallimard, 1991) a long literary and philosophic meditation on the picture. It is well written, a bit rhetorical, and well illustrated; it may not add much to our understanding of the work but it is not a bad companion if one wants one.

  6. 6

    It is to Grunchec’s credit that he had already been suspicious, and in his 1978 catalog had called attention to the atypical handling of the drapery. He had also spotted an exact replica of the picture in which the signature of Champmartin was visible.

  7. 7

    On the issue of Géricault’s self-portraits disagreement is total. Bazin still insists that a picture in Rouen (not in the exhibition) is Géricault’s self-portrait, but Grunchec attributed it to Piotr Michalowski (1800–1855) and this has been accepted by Polish art historians. Christopher Sells, who has otherwise made important contributions to the study of the artist, has bizarrely claimed to see a self-portrait of Géricault in the Carabinier in Rouen, a superb bust-length picture of a soldier holding his horse, while the Carabinier in the Louvre, clearly made from the same model, would, according to Sells, be a portrait of Horace Vernet.

  8. 8

    K. H. Spencer, The Graphic Art of Géricault, exhibition catalog (Yale University Art Gallery, 1969).

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