Géricault was born 15 years after John Constable and exerted a seminal influence on the development of Romantic art in France. He was instrumental in recognising Constable’s unique talent.
Raft of the Medusa
Géricault is best known for his masterpiece Raft of the Medusa (c.1819) – see second image above. The painting depicts the aftermath of an actual French shipwreck. Abandoned by the ship captain (who escaped on the only life-boat), passengers were left to die on a raft they had been forced to make themselves out of parts of the sinking ship. For an enlightening discussion on the circumstances in which Gericault created this painting, click this link – Gericault and Raft of the Medusa
The Raft of the Medusa presented a recent event in horrifying emotional realism, depicting humans in extremis – overwhelmed by nature beyond their control. Humans are pitted against the elements, not in triumph but in tragedy. The macabre aspect is heightened by the dynamic composition, the dramatic lighting picking out the figures as in a spotlight. Their flesh is waxen, deathly pallor, intensifying their helplessness before nature and their ultimate fate, The work is remarkable for:
- its macabre realism
- its treatment of the raft incident as epic-heroic tragedy
- the virtuosity of its drawing and tonalities
- the way all the above combine to lend the painting dignity in addressing a contemporary subject with remarkable passion
- The shipwreck caused a national scandal and Géricault’s painting, which was regarded as insensitive, was not well received in France. Géricault took the painting to England in 1820, where it met with sensational success.
Discovering John Constable
Gericault visited the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1821 at which Constable was exhibiting The Haywain. The Haywain had attracted little attention and remained unsold but Gericault was stunned by it and communicated his enthusiasm to Delacroix. It is said that Delacroix made his style of painting in the Massacre of Chios lighter and more vibrant after seeing Constable’s works – a real tribute by a great painter to a contemporary.
French appreciation of John Constable’s work led to The Haywain being awarded the King Charles X Gold Medal for Art in 1824, France’s most prestigious art prize. Only after this exceptional recognition in France (and thanks in no small way to Gericault) did the Royal Academy in England start to understand the value of John Constable’s work.
Géricault was educated in the tradition of English sporting art and painted many horses (including Napoleon’s horse) and cavalry men. In The Charging Chasseur (1812) see third image above, the horse symbolises the romantic spirit, energy bursts out of the frame, the horse barely held in check by the rider who represents man’s rationality overcome by feeling. The painting demonstrates Gericault’s love of dramatic action, vibrant colour and swirling movement.
A devotee of Constable and Rubens, Gericault’s sensitivity and skill in painting horses has surely been under-estimated? Take a look at the images four, five and six above – The Horse Market (1816-19), The Return from Russia (1818) and The Plaster Kiln (1823) and you may wonder why he is spoken of in the same breath as Stubbs or Munnings.
To see more of Gericault’s paintings take a look at the link below.
A short life and early death
Repeated riding accidents and chronic tubercular infections ruined Gericault’s health and he died aged 33 after a long period of suffering – just as his own career as a painter was opening up.