Raft of the Medusa, 1819
Continuing our theme of French artists, Jean Louis Théodore Géricault was born on September 26, 1791 in Rouen, Northern France. Géricault was a pioneer in Romanticism, a newer, more vigorous and less polished realism than the prevailing NeoClassicism of the day. Expressiveness, independent thought and thicker brushstrokes helped pave the way for a movement that would change history and lead the way to modernism. His oeuvre would cover a range of material from military to horses, even so far as doing studies of mental patients at a hospital. Many of the studies from that experience lead to quite macabre subjects, painting skulls, severed limbs and body parts, yet Géricault's portraits are what separate him from his contemporaries. Géricault would only live to the age of 32.
In Raft of the Medusa above, Géricault's first major work and his most famous, depicts a true story of a highly publicized shipwreck near the coast of West Africa where the Méduse drifted off course and hit a sandbank. The last survivors were piled on top of a makeshift raft for nearly two weeks until they were discovered by a passing ship. Of the nearly 146 people on board, only fifteen survived by the time they were rescued. Everything from cannibalism, murder, starvation and drowning occurred on this raft, and Géricault went to great lengths to represent this embarrassing scandal for the French government. I saw the painting in the Louvre years ago, and I remember how large it is, life-size, and riveting. His palette is very cool yet traces of red and warm colors underline the drama. By forgoing mythology and religion Géricault brought art to the present, retelling an event that happened only a few years before, and instead chose to make heroes of victims.
Étude for the Raft of the Medusa,1819
Note the "window-shade" technique he uses, a Classical French method still taught today in many ateliers and art schools. Note the strong greens in this flesh.
Riderless Racers at Rome, 1817
Based on his travels in Rome, Géricault portrays an annual event in spring where horses were left to run free in a race on the Via Del Corso for over two minutes. This event must have captured the imagination of Géricault, who loved horses very much and saw them as an archetype of Romanticism itself, free, wild and strong. Géricault depicts the event in soft morning light in one-point perspective, at the moment before the race begins. It is an intriguing theme.
Portrait Study of a Youth,1820
This unfinished painting has all the character and emotion of youth and curiosity that many finished works lack. Note the complementary color scheme. A simple background and dramatic light are all that Géricault uses here, yet is the expression on the face that makes this portrait.
A Turk (Moustafa), ca.1820
Done in black chalk and watercolor, this study is rough but interesting at the same time. There is no sentimentality or melodrama at all. It is just a portrait, almost like something out of a sketchbook. Géricault manages to capture a neutral facial expression of this man with the preciseness of a camera.
A Madwoman and Compulsive Gambler, 1822
Hardly a noble subject, Géricault paints a hospital patient with the reverence of a Rembrandt. There is a truth and insight to this face that goes way beyond status and identity.
Painted with gouache on poplar wood, Géricault experiments with an erotic theme using light and physicality to depict the sensuality of this scene. It is a pity he didn't fully develop the direction he was going here. Note the heavy foxing on the right half of the painting. Had Géricault lived longer, art history as we know it would have changed completely as we know it.