Posted: 02 Jul 2012 | By: Patricia Anderson - Editor
What can a painting from the early nineteenth-century offer us that a contemporary realist work cannot? Firstly, confidence in its narrative power. There was nothing to compete — no photography, no television, no animated games. If its painter had a vision which was at once searching and exact, and a technique which was unique and recognisable, the results could be breathtaking.
The breadth and depth of Géricault’s oeuvre has been captured in a handsome new volume, Théodore Géricault, published by Phaidon Press and written by Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, an art historian who studied at the Sorbonne and Princeton University and who has published widely on French nineteenth-century art.
Géricault was born in 1791, the year of France’s first failed constitution, the completion of the Brandenburg Gate and the premier performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Heady days indeed. He belonged to the Restoration’s rising middle classes; that influential bourgeoisie which effloresced after the collapse of the Napoleonic empire after 1815 and which expected to see its accomplishments acknowledged.
His mother came from a line of wealthy tobacco manufacturers, so he might easily have been destined for a life of refined idleness. However, his ambitious temperament and his engagement with political activists and influential writers such as Balzac and Victor Hugo ensured a turbulent and extraordinarily productive life. Further, his maternal grandmother bequeathed an annuity which gave him life-long independence as an artist. ‘Life-long’ proved not to be all that long and when Géricault died at thirty-two in 1824 — at the very height of his powers — the unhelpful notion of the tragic painter calcified into a catchcry.
At fifteen he was enrolled at Lycée Impérial, where his singular drawing talent was recognised at once, as was his attraction to risky distractions. His love of horses (he always chose the wildest) grew from his conviction that they represented “untamed primal energy”. Indeed, the horse would generate some of his most impassioned excursions and explosive energy on the canvas. In such works it seems Géricault’s brush became an agent of irritation.
Many of his early paintings embrace the fantasy of martial splendour; of the invincible French military which was cut to ribbons in Napoleon’s face-off against a coalition of other European powers. There are glorious and heartrending canvases of proud hussars, lancers and cavalry, and it was paintings such as these which helped to fuel the hopes of an “Empire … fed on showmanship and mirages”.
In 1816, in spite of his failure in the Prix de Rome competition, he took himself to Italy; first Florence, then Naples, then Rome. The trip began exultantly (his letters suggest he was the toast of the French diplomatic court) but soon palled through boredom and loneliness. Much of his work from this period is with pen, brown ink, graphite, crayon and white gouache (which allowed for extreme and theatrical highlights) on differently coloured papers. These works, “vibrating with passion”, are already echoing Stendhal’s thoughts on aesthetics. As Athanassoglou-Kallmyer puts it: “For Stendhal, art in France had become a matter of mindless repetition of an obsolete classical beauty, impervious to modern changes,” while someone like Michelangelo had upended stale formulas by “instilling them with the concerns and emotions of his own age”. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer makes it clear that Michelangelo’s explosively active works were a powerful influence on those Géricault conceived in Rome.
One of the most compelling features of the book is the way in which the author threads the shifting subjects of Géricault’s art through the warp and weft of the political and social crises of France — the incarcerations, the murders and terrorism. Because many French liberals embraced nationalist insurgencies around the world — a direct inheritance of their own failed Napoleonic dream — Géricault was alert to the liberalist aims of the Latin and Spanish revolutionaries. One uprising in particular caught his imagination. This was the 1821 uprising of Greek subjects of the Ottoman Empire, which, apart from its military and political aims, fuelled a trend for Orientalism in painting and writing — a direct offshoot of the alliance of liberalism and romanticism.
Géricault is best known for his painting The Raft of the Medusa, which fuses the horrific, the political and the aesthetic, and an entire chapter of the book is devoted to his apparent fascination with the gruesome. According to the author, this was not a reflection of his alleged ‘morbid psyche’ “but rather a manifestation of a specific cultural strand of romanticism called ‘frenetic’ or ‘genre noir’”. This was a taste for the supernatural, the crimes on the boulevard, the morgue, the charnel house and the hangman’s corpses, which ran right through all walks of French society at the time, and expressed itself in plays, melodramas, cheap woodblock prints and novels. This impulse took pleasure in provoking and thumbing a nose at classicism and bourgeois conservatism and ‘Géricault was no exception to this trend’. Indeed, the horrific was fruitful territory for him as The Raft of the Medusa illustrates.
The painting was inspired by the 1816 shipwreck of a royal navy frigate the Medusa, whose political shock waves were still emanating in 1818. The vessel had clandestine government approval to trade in slaves — an activity only recently abolished — with the French colony of Senegal, but ran aground on a sandy reef off the west coast of Africa. The ‘higher ups’ commandeered the six available life boats, while the rest of the passengers and crew were packed on a raft cobbled together from the ship’s masts and tethered to the boats to be towed. The officers in the boats decided to sever the ropes with an axe. Thirteen days later, as the passengers descended into a netherworld of horror, hunger, mutiny, insanity, suicide and cannibalism, the raft with its fifteen remaining men was sighted by a British vessel, the Argus. A scandal swept over France’s administration like a tidal wave and Géricault’s painting of human desperation gave future generations one of the most powerful visions of hell to ever to appear on canvas.
Images from top:
French School, Portrait of an Artist in his Studio, (detail), early 1800s, oil on canvas, 147 x 114cm. Musée de Louvre, Paris.
Théodore Géricault, Horses’ Rumps, c.1814–15, oil on canvas, Private Collection, Paris.
Théodore Géricault, Three Trumpeters of the Polish Lancers, (detail) c.1814, oil on canvas, 60.4 x 49.6cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Théodore Géricault, The Race of the Barberi Horses, c.1817, oil on paper on canvas, 45 x 60cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen.
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, oil on canvas, 491 x 716cm. Musée de Louvre, Paris.