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.
The formidable challenge for Clément’s successors is not so much his thoroughness as the vividness, power, and conviction of the image of Géricault that he has left us. His book is a work of imagination as well as of documentation. Because his characterization of Géricault is based on the testimony of living witnesses, it has enormous authority; but it is not always easy to distinguish Clément’s own imaginative contribution to the portrait of the artist. Therefore we must always depend to some degree on his creative scholarship. Since his book is also a remarkably penetrating work of art criticism, the contemporary scholar of Géricault has much to start from, but he also has a hard task if he wishes to make an important contribution of his own.
Eitner, who previously published an annotated edition of Clément’s book, had the wisdom to take the full measure of his predecessor, whom he treats with the greatest respect. Not only does he refer to him constantly for information, but he also quotes his opinions often and at length. There is, however, one aspect of Géricault’s work where Clément’s account is deficient; he described and studied only a small fraction of Géricault’s drawings. While he certainly considered Géricault a great draftsman, as indeed he was, he was content to describe and analyze only the larger and aesthetically most impressive sheets. But a great many others—minor sheets from sketchbooks, quick notations, and less successful drawings—can be revealing if looked at closely.
Thanks to Eitner’s persistent search over the years, and his intimate knowledge of all the drawings, he can show that Géricault’s working procedures were highly idiosyncratic. They were also in some ways inefficient. When he considered a subject, Géricault would construct a sequence of drawings in which he seems to tell himself the story in images. He did this not simply, as one might think, in order to discover the most dramatic moment, the most propitious subject for a painting. In the case of the Raft of the Medusa, he drew several moments of the ordeal and final rescue of the survivors. While he may have seriously considered alternatives to his final choice—the moment when those on the raft first see the rescuing ship—he also drew the abandoned raft after the rescue, which, as Eitner points out, could not possibly have worked as the subject of a large picture. He was clearly exploring a kind of serial method, of which there are several examples.
Of exceptional interest is a series of drawings, now dispersed, where Géricault narrates the murder of Fualdès, a gruesome crime committed in the remote provincial town of Rodez, but inflated into a political scandal by the opposition press. Géricault made these drawings at a time when he was groping for a subject for a large work to exhibit at the Salon of 1819. The project was not pursued beyond these quick sketches, and the painter eventually chose to paint the disaster of the Medusa instead. It is striking that both subjects contain similar elements of topicality and horror, and that both have aggressive political implications. There is no “right moment” in the sequence of the Fualdès drawings, and this lack of climax may be one of the reasons why Géricault abandoned the idea; in retrospect the effect of the sequence is all the more interesting for the lack of a conventional dramatic climax.
While he elaborated a composition Géricault also had an utterly distinctive way of alternating between literal rendering with a sharp contemporary flavor and transcriptions into the idealizing forms of classical art. He would transform Italian stable boys, Rodez thugs, or the dehydrated victims of the Medusa into heroic nudes that could comfortably inhabit the Parthenon. No other artist of the period, not even David, had such a profound understanding of classical art. And one is amazed to find that in one or two of his few sculptures, Géricault came closer to Michelangelo’s distinctive merging of physical and spiritual energies than any other artist ever did.
Even Géricault’s methods of studying other painters were idiosyncratic, and they are characteristic of a largely self-taught genius. Of the painters we think of as unquestionably great, Ingres was the last to have gone through the full traditional curriculum, while Géricault is the first to have shunned the system. He replaced it by systematic study at the Louvre, or Musée Napoléon as it was known for a few years, where he went on copying pictures well after his student days; he obviously felt that Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, and others were his true masters and that they still had something specific to teach him.
This independence of the official institutions of art was made possible by Géricault’s social position. Once he had overcome his father’s objections to an artistic career, he had the means to practice art as he pleased and he could afford the luxury of independence, inefficiency, and lack of success. As Eitner points out, Géricault, coming from the well-to-do middle class, must have seemed to Guérin, his teacher, like a gifted amateur whom he did not really have to discipline into professional efficiency. For the artist to be in such a position became a significant feature of the avant-garde tradition during the nineteenth century: Manet, Degas, Cézanne, all had support from their families that allowed them unusual freedom. For the impecunious the traditional curriculum, with its opportunities for scholarship and support, led naturally to an official career. There were exceptions, of course, such as Renoir, but on the whole it can be said that artistic freedom was a luxury, and that Géricault showed how to make use of it.
It would be a mistake, of course, to see Géricault only as an initiator of modern art. Eitner, who certainly does not underestimate his importance in this respect, is also sensitive to the continuity that exists between Géricault and his predecessors, David in particular. Here he is right to add a nuance to Clément’s view that Géricault broke drastically with the art of David. Of The Raft of The “Medusa” Eitner remarks, “It represented not so much a break with the School of David as a striking intensification of the realist and baroque elements in it, at the expense of its classicism.”
We must remember that Clément was writing at a time when David was little appreciated, when his historical compositions were considered cold, not to say tedious. Today we understand them differently. We feel that in these paintings, in spite of the ostensible remoteness of the forms and the transpositions of the current historical issues into the world of classical antiquity, David expresses a passionate interest in the events of his time. His involvement with the ideas and personalities of the Revolution led him into direct political action and eventually into exile. When the old master was in exile in Brussels, Géricault went from London to pay his respects.
From David, Géricault absorbed both a sense of engagement with contemporary issues and a feeling for grandeur. But he clearly wanted to do away with David’s transposition of modern life into the antique. He was not alone in this ambition: it had become, in fact, the official policy of the Napoleonic regime, and was already suggested by David himself during the Revolution. These were heroic times when the solemnity of official occasions and the grandeur of public action were felt to be on a scale in no way inferior to that of the Romans or Greeks. By the time Géricault was twenty-three, however, Napoleon’s day was over, and Géricault attitude quickly became one of estrangement from the conventional world of the restoration. As a result he took on the task not of glorifying the great, but of finding the heroic side of the humble. In Géricault’s later career this concern had become so urgent that it even affected his pictures of horses, in which, more often than not, the work-horse replaced the thoroughbred.
Eitner’s tendency to play down the political side of Géricault’s work, for which he has been justly criticized,* tends to distort the artist’s accomplishment. For one thing, it has kept Eitner from thoroughly investigating Géricault’s exact political allegiances, which are far from clear and need further investigation. It also makes him understand some works as too general and detached from circumstances. His interpretation of The Raft of the “Medusa” emphasizes only its universal message and drastically underplays the contemporary references of the picture. True, the final form of the painting, with its carefully constructed pyramidal composition, is very grandiose, and Géricault has almost completely stripped the figures of modern clothes in order to display athletic nudes that evoke a sort of timeless antiquity. But the spectators at the Salon were nevertheless very sensitive to the topical and political implications of the subject. More important, that such a grand canvas had no hero—and that an anonymous black man occupies a central position in it—had subversive implications, to which Eitner does less than justice. On the other hand, Eitner is eloquent about Géricault’s amazing ability to evoke the physicality of his subjects. And it is precisely this sense of physical presence that enables the artist to reconcile the grandeur of myth with the poignancy of the immediate situation with which he deals.
In his chapter on Géricault’s ten paintings of insane people, of which only five are preserved, Eitner best describes Géricault’s complex relation to his time. Here Géricault has used the device of a series—with no narrative—in order to make a powerful statement that goes far beyond the significance of any single image. In bust-length representations close to life-size, he portrayed an entire gallery of lunatics. The exact circumstances of this extraordinary project, which was probably executed after Géricault’s return from England, are unknown, as is the specific purpose, if any, that the paintings were supposed to serve.
The paintings, however, belonged to Géricault’s friend Dr. Georget, who was a young and brilliant alienist. At the time insanity was a central issue in medical thought, and physiognomy was an important field of investigation. Eitner shows that the painter must have collaborated closely with Georget. But Géricault himself is known to have had some sort of nervous breakdown after he finished the Raft, and it seems certain that he contemplated suicide more than once. For him insanity was more than a scientific abstraction. Eitner has gauged exactly how passion and objectivity, personal anxiety, and concern for the scientific problems of the time are merged in these paintings. Clément hardly noticed them but they appear today, even as pure painting, as among the artist’s greatest achievements. Eitner, characteristically, is not concerned with the social aspect of the problem of insanity in the nineteenth century, and this remains for others to investigate. Equally characteristic, however, is the surprising and brilliant comparison he makes in the following passage:
There is a curious parallel in this respect between the clinical accuracy of Géricault’s portraits and the realism of John Constable’s exactly contemporary cloud studies. These also probe the underlying natural processes in appearance that had previously been considered accidental, but were now found to possess definite, classifiable structures. Constable, as a painter of landscape, profited from insights into nature that the new science of meteorology offered him, in much the same way in which Géricault, as portraitist, benefited from the advance of psychiatry. Constable’s truthful cloud portraits and Géricault’s objective studies of mental patients document in their various ways a momentary convergence of science and art.
To address so important a question as the relation of art and science with such economy and tact, and to suggest in a few sentences a large vision of the period, are remarkable accomplishments. Such acute critical insights are frequent throughout Eitner’s book and give it lasting importance.
January 17, 1985
Notably by Paul Joannides in his review of Eitner’s monograph, Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” Burlington Magazine CXVII (March 1975), pp. 171–172, and more recently by Francis Haskell, Times Literary Supplement, July 15, 1983. ↩