Born: Rouen, France
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Théodore Gericault was born in Rouen to parents of the property-owning middle class. The family moved to Paris in about 1796. On graduating from the Lycée Impérial in 1808, he declared his intention to become an artist. The death of his mother the same year brought him an annuity that assured his future independence. Against his father’s wish, he apprenticed himself to Carle Vernet (1758-1836), the fashionable painter of equestrian subjects, who allowed him the freedom of his studio but seems not to have given him any formal training. Feeling the need for a more disciplined education, Gericault in 1810 moved to the studio of Pierre Guérin (1774-1833), a rigorous classicist and conscientious teacher, who made an effort to put him through the routines of the academic curriculum. Gericault proved to be a resistant pupil who kept up his attendance at Guérin’s studio only for eleven months. Few traces remain of his student work. After taking amicable leave of Guérin, he continued his training as his own master, setting up his easel in the galleries of the Louvre, which were filled with the art loot of Napoleon’s campaigns. Reacting against Guérin’s classicism, he copied paintings by the dramatic colorists of the Renaissance and the baroque, particularly Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt, and intermittently continued these private studies of the masters until 1815, when the allies stripped the Louvre of Napoleon’s booty.
At twenty-one, still a largely self-taught beginner, Gericault presented himself at the Salon of 1812, the last of Napoleon’s reign, with his Charging Chasseur(Louvre), a dashing improvisation rapidly worked up into a picture of Salon format. Of provocative size, indebted to Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) and to Gericault’s recent impressions of Rubens, the Chasseur held its own among the Salon’s grand performances and earned him a gold medal. After this precocious success, he resumed his self-training. Renouncing the magnitude and drama of the Chasseur for the time being, he occupied himself with small-scale studies from life, of horses observed in the stables of Versailles and brightly uniformed cavalrymen.
He witnessed the fall of the empire with seeming indifference and in the summer of 1814 enlisted in the Gray Musketeers, a royalist elite cavalry, more decorative than military. For the Salon that the Bourbon government hastily organized in the autumn of 1814, he reverted to heroic dimensions and the grand style with his Wounded Cuirassier Leaving the Field of Battle (Louvre), conceived as a pendant to the Chasseur, which was shown again on this occasion. The ponderous figure of the defeated soldier, modeled in intense, dark colors, marked his return to a style of calculated monumentality and heightened expressiveness.
On Napoleon’s sudden return from Elba in March 1815, Gericault rode in the escort that covered the flight of Louis XVIII. During the Hundred Days he lay in hiding. His work to this point had belonged to the current of national modernity that was one of the two main tendencies in French art of the time. After Waterloo, he seems to have concluded that this vein, inextricably involved with Napoleon’s reign, was exhausted. He made an abrupt change in his work, not only abandoning modern military subjects but also radically altering his style. With sudden determination, he turned to classical themes and, in an effort to teach himself the art of composing ideal subjects, inflicted on himself the kind of academic regimen that he had earlier refused to accept from Guérin. He rehearsed the rudiments of figure construction and composition, taking his motifs from the repertoire of classicist stock types that he had shunned in his student days. But instead of becoming a conforming classicist, he ruthlessly distorted the neoclassical idiom in the act of appropriating it. Romantic in its intensity, bearing the stamp of Michelangelo rather than David, this highly personal version of classicism lent itself–better than the fluent realism of his earlier work–to resonant dramatic statements.
In March 1816 he competed for the academic Rome Prize but failed the contest and decided to undertake the voyage on his own account. His Italian stay in 1816-1817 gave him profound impressions of paintings of heroic size that further stimulated his interest in problems of style and whetted his appetite for work on the wall-filling scale. The great enterprise of his Italian year was the project of a large Race of the Barberi Horses, suggested by an event of the Roman carnival that he had witnessed in February 1817. He began by recording the start of the race as he had seen it in the Piazza del Popolo, then gradually suppressed its picturesquely Italian features and transformed the modern scene into a timeless frieze of athletes struggling with horses.
On returning to France in the fall of 1817, he abandoned this project but continued briefly in its direction with studies for a Cattle Market (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts), conceived as a monumental battle between men and beasts. At the same time, he tried subjects of a more pointed contemporary significance, such as the murder of Fualdes, a sensational crime that he proposed to represent in the “antique” style. Meanwhile his renewed interest in modern subjects led him to take up lithography, a process recently imported to France, in which he attempted to treat scenes from the Napoleonic Wars in an elevated style, without falling into the conventions of classicism. The crowning result of these various efforts was the Raft of the Medusa (Louvre), completed in 1819, after an exhausting, yearlong struggle. The enormous canvas represents an episode of a recent shipwreck that had violently aroused French public opinion. The problem that Gericault set himself in composing his picture was to combine the immediacy of an eyewitness account with the permanence and stability of monumental composition. He thus sought to unite the two antithetical aspects of his art in a grand synthesis, reconciling historical realism with heroic generality: the modern shipwreck was made to echo Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. At the Salon of 1819, the Raft of the Medusa, misinterpreted as an attack on the government, met with a mainly hostile reception.
Disappointed and exhausted, Gericault “renounced the grand manner to return to the stables” (Gericault to Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, in Charles Clément, Gericault, étude biographique et critique, avec le catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre du maître, 3rd ed., Paris, 1879: 104). He went to England in 1820 to exhibit the Raft, and under English influence renewed acquaintance with that essentially anticlassical tradition of modern genre to which Carle Vernet had once introduced him. He sketched fashionable horsemen, farriers, beggars, and the caged animals in the zoological gardens in a manner that, if it lacked some of his customary force, had gained in subtlety of observation and freshness of color. A sporting picture of distinctly English inspiration, the Epsom Down Derby (Louvre), remained the only major painting of his year in Britain. When he returned to Paris in the winter of 1821, his health had begun to fail. Repeated riding accidents, aggravating a tubercular condition, brought on a painful and ultimately fatal illness. As death approached, his work regained much of its former compact strength while retaining its newly won refinement of color. In the industrial landscape of the Lime Kiln and in the series Portraits of the Insane, painted in 1822-1823, he achieved a style that was both realistic and in the highest degree expressive. In the final stages of his illness, he was overcome again by his old ambition to give epic grandeur to a scene from modern life and, though helplessly bedridden, projected immense compositions of such controversial themes as the African Slave Trade and the Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition. His death on 26 January 1824, at thirty-two, cut short these last efforts.