Géricault, (Jean-Louis-André) Théodore

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Géricault, (Jean-Louis-André) Théodore (1791-1824): French, Painter and Sculptor.

Théodore Géricault was one of the first artists to show characteristics of nineteenth-century Romanticism--emotionally charged subjects in dramatic compositions. He was born in Rouen, France, to a middle class family and essentially self-taught, learning his skills by copying the paintings of old masters in the Louvre Museum. Critical success came as early as 1812, when he won an award in the state supported academy exhibition for a large painting, titled Charging Chasseur, depicting a cavalry officer riding into battle. This was immediately interpreted by viewers as a reflection of Bonaparte, Napoleon's military glory. From this time onward, Géricault captured the admiration of the public by addressing issues of social concern. During a trip to Rome in 1816, he saw Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and was inspired by its visions of Hell and human suffering. As a result, he painted his most famous work, The Raft of the Medusa, 1817-1818, which was inspired by a contemporary event. The large painting represents a group of men set adrift on a raft in the open sea and forced to resort to cannibalism. Unfortunately, this secular portrayal of apocalyptic horrors offended the French pubic and damaged his reputation; perhaps it was too reminiscent of the recent violence of the Reign of Terror. He took the painting to London, where he found a more favorable response and stayed there until 1821, completing several lithographic prints representing the lower class poor of England. After returning to Paris, he met Dr. Etienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatric medicine, for whom he painted portraits of patients. This unprecedented approach to portraiture showed facial characteristics as illustrations of specific mental illnesses. A promising career was cut short after he contracted tubercular disease. He died at the age of 32 while working on a large painting critical of African slave trade.

Further Reading:

Lorenz Eitner, Géricault: His Life and Work, 1983.


Lynne Lokensgard

Lamar University

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