The French painter Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), by virtue of his subject matter and style, is generally considered the first true romanticist. In his short career he established the most viable direction for the immediate future of painting.
Théodore Géricault was born in Rouen on Sept. 26, 1791, the son of a lawyer who did not approve of the boy's wish to become a painter. Upon leaving the Lycée Impérial in 1808, Géricault clandestinely entered the studio of the famous painter of horses Carle Vernet. Géricault had a great love for horses and this alone, no doubt, explains his choice of a master, for Vernet's elegant, rather bloodless animals have very little in common with the vigorous creations of his student. Géricault remained in Vernet's studio for 2 years and formed a lasting friendship with the master's son, Horace.
Géricault then studied with Pierre Narcisse Guérin, who, steeped in neoclassic principles, could not understand the turn his student's art was taking. With reference to Géricault's simplification of form, Guérin is said to have remarked, "As for your figures, they resemble nature the way a violin case resembles a violin." And Géricault's penchant for strong value contrasts elicited the criticism that all Géricault's pictures seemed to have been painted by moonlight. Yet Guérin, in the opinion of Géricault's biographer Charles Clément, was tolerant of his pupil's forceful originality.
In 1812 the Salon accepted Géricault's Chasseur Officer on Horseback Charging, the first of only three paintings to be publicly exhibited in France during his lifetime. The picture was well received and was awarded a gold medal, but it was not purchased by the state. Géricault had less success 2 years later at the Salon with his Wounded Cuirassier, equally colossal in size but less finished in execution as well as in planning. The artist himself was dissatisfied with it.
Shortly after the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, Géricault joined the royal musketeers and was stationed at Versailles for 2 or 3 months. During this period he had a love affair with an unidentified woman who bore him a son, Hyppolyte Georges.
Géricault had always been an admirer of the Old Masters and had copied their work at the Louvre. In 1816 he embarked upon a trip to Florence and Rome, where he studied the painting of Raphael and, even more, of Michelangelo, whose temperament was much closer to his own. In Rome, Géricault undertook the painting of a major work, the Race of Riderless Horses on the Corso, inspired by a tumultuous local event. He never completed it, but two of the preparatory oils reveal that he sought a fusion of the excitement of the experienced, contemporary event with the notion of timelessness inherent in the art of classical antiquity.
Upon his return to Paris in 1817, Géricault made his first lithographs and brought a degree of his free style to the medium. The following year he began work on what was to become his largest and best known composition, the Raft of the Medusa. The subject was suggested by an actual event of 1816 which had captured the public's imagination and stimulated their political sensibilities: a raft with survivors from the sunken frigate Medusa was recovered after 12 days of unspeakable agony; only 15 of the original 149 passengers were alive. Blame was put on the incompetent, politically reactionary captain and, through him, on the government itself. Géricault belonged to a liberal group which met at the house of his friend Horace Vernet, but his interest in the event was primarily in the human drama of anguish and survival, and he complained when a critic saw in the expression of one of his figures a criticism of the Ministry of the Navy.
While the Raft of the Medusa did not receive the expected acclaim at the Salon of 1819, it did earn Géricault a great deal of money, for he toured the English provinces with it. In England he produced his famous set of lithographs known as the "Great English Series," and he painted the Races at Epsom, based largely on an English racing print but invigorated by the richness of Géricault's palette and stroke. This picture is often noted as a prefiguration of impressionism. While the modernity of the racing theme and the interest in atmosphere may justify such a view, it should be observed that the theatricality of the impossible "flying gallop" is entirely alien to the impressionists' handling of the subject.
Perhaps Géricault's most enduring achievement consists of the portraits of mental patients at the Hospital of the Salpêtrière in Paris, painted in 1822. These pictures were intended as representations of the "ten classic types" established by the pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Georget, and the five extant paintings have the distinction of showing not a trace of mockery. The artist may well have seen in these cases heightened states of normal emotions and, in this sense, found them akin to his art as a whole.
In his last years Géricault planned a number of ambitious works, among them the Slave Trade and Victims of the Inquisition, but he did not complete them. After a series of unfortunate accidents and, possibly, as a result of a generally dissolute life, Géricault's health deteriorated steadily for a period of almost a year, and he died in Paris at the age of 32, on Jan. 26, 1824.
The basic work for all Géricault studies is still Charles Clément, Géricault (1868), which is in French. A good modern study in English is Klaus Berger, Géricault and His Work (1952; trans. 1955), which contains a catalog of works and many illustrations. Geraldine Pelles, Art, Artists and Society—Origins of a Modern Dilemma: Painting in England and France, 1750-1850 (1963), is recommended for general background.
Clement, Charles, Géricault: a biographical and critical study with a catalogue raisonne of the master's works, New York: Da Capo, 1974.
Eitner, Lorenz, Géricault, his life and work, London: Orbis Pub., 1983.