Theodore Gericault Biography
- Full Name:
- Théodore Géricault
- Short Name:
- Date of Birth:
- 26 Sep 1791
- Date of Death:
- 26 Jan 1824
- Paintings, Drawings
- Oil, Wood, Other
- Figure, Scenery
- Art Movement:
- Paris, France
Handsome, brooding and elegant, Théodore Géricault was a typical Romantic artist. Exhibiting a fierce individualism in his subject matter and tone, he lived a tragically short yet intense life.
His masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa was iconic in the era in which he lived, forging a new emphasis on raw emotion and sharply veering away from the refined compositional studies of Neoclassicism.
Géricault's interests varied throughout his life, an influence of his surroundings and the politics of the era.
Theodore Gericault Early Years
Born in the pleasant middle-class enclave of Rouen, France, to wealthy parents, Géricault's artistic inclinations were fed and reinforced from a very young age.
In 1808 he began his first apprenticeship with Carle Vernet, a Neoclassical painter who shared young Théodore's fascination with horses.
He only lasted two years under Vernet's tutelage before deciding that he had absorbed all that he could from the dandyish artist, stating "one of my horses would have devoured six of his. " Géricault never lacked in confidence.
He then turned worked in another studio, that of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, where he met another young fiery Frenchman, Eugéne Delacroix. The two would forge a lasting friendship and mutual admiration, going on to found the artistic movement known as Romanticism.
At this time however, Neoclassicism was still all the rage in Paris, and that is what they studied under Guérin. Both were also influenced by another painter who bridged the gap between the two movements, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
After leaving the classroom Géricault studied at the Louvre and spent his time copying paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Diego Velázquez, and Rembrandt. He was intrigued by the energy of the works he found and preferred these to the popular school of Neoclassicism.
Géricault was interested in a style of painting that was less rigid and contrived than the Neoclassical works he was taught to emulate, and to this end he utilized a new set of preparatory practices.
Rather than preparing detailed sketches in advance, he would paint from live models directly onto the canvas, creating a more in-the-moment relevancy in his works.
Theodore Gericault Middle Years
Living in such a pivotal time in the history of France had an effect on the young Gericault. When the Emperor Napoleon returned to power in 1815, kicking off the Hundred Days of Napoleon, the artist couldn't help but become involved.
Géricault found himself feeling betrayed and disgusted by the cowardice of the King's army, who deserted King Louis XVIII in the face of the Napoleonic invasion. He thus joined the French Musketeers and helped escort the desperate King to safety in Belgium.
Given to wild changes in temperament however, Gericault later reversed this stance and sided with the liberal opposition back in France, using his painting to back this up.
His work was solid on political topics, such as the ending of the Inquisition and anti-slavery messages. However what really drove home Gericault's political view and cemented his permanent position in the annals of art history was The Raft of the Medusa, painted in 1818.
This landmark painting depicts a tragic event in French History, the shipwreck of the French vessel "Medusa" in 1816. Approximately 150 people were set onto a raft off the coast of Mauritania, however all but 15 of them perished before being rescued almost two weeks later.
A gruesome tale of cannibalism, descent into madness, and the failure of the French government to act in time to rescue the souls set adrift, this reflected poorly on the restored French Monarchy.
By choosing to depict this event in such a heart-wrenching, realistic and emotional manner, Géricault made a bold statement that served as a model for Romantics down the line such as Delacroix and Courbet.
On the strength of this painting and his other lithographs, Géricault toured England from 1820-1822, gaining widespread fame and fortune. He also helped to influence the burgeoning Romantic painting movement taking hold in England at the time, with such artists as Turner and Waterhouse.
Theodore Gericault Advanced Years
Upon his return to France, Gericault executed a well-received series of ten paintings depicting various types of insanity. He travelled to the Paris asylum of Salpetriere, and painted movingly accurate portraits of the inmates.
Sadly, only five remain today and are scattered around France. At this time he also tackled rather gruesome still-lifes of severed heads and other macabre subject matter.
Gericault's lifelong love of the equestrian arts did not serve him well when he suffered a riding accident in 1824, which exacerbated his tubercular condition. He died at the young age of 32, in the prime of his career. However, he left a legacy that would influence fellow Romantics as well as artists for centuries to come.