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Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault - Biography
Théodore Géricault grew up in the turbulent years of the French Revolution and Napoleon's reign. He studied with several fashionable artists, but the strongest impact on his work, aside from Goya, came from the influence of Baron Jean-Antoin Gros (1771-1835) - a painter who had studied with David and who was a fundamental link between David and the new generation of French painters of the early nineteenth century. From Gros's canvases, especially those which make Napoleon the centre of an emotional, almost mystical, glorification; Géricault drew much inspiration both for Romantic interpretation and for styles.

Géricault, like Gros, Goya, and other artists, was interested in painting contemporary, topical events, not only as a depiction of that particular event, but also as an exploration of the passionate emotions and truths that underlay it. Often Géricault's searches yielded dark and previously unknown images. Fascinated by violence and horror, he made a series of bloodcurdling paintings of the decapitated heads of criminals. These he studied not in the scientific manner of a Leonardo da Vinci eager to learn the secrets of the human form, but for the awful nature of suffering and violent death, something he himself courted by riding dangerous horses and by a failed attempt at suicide.

That Géricault found the irrational compelling is confirmed by another disturbing series, this time of mad men and women. Whereas Goya had portrayed the hallucinations to which a madman might be prone, Géricault intensively studied the faces of those who were actually insane. The fact that these disturbed and frightening creatures were now considered, like the severed heads, worth subjects for painting demonstrates a fundamental shift in the concept of what art was supposed to depict.

It is impossible to conceive of David, the great Neo-classicist, painting such gruesome and, in the traditional view, such uninspiring and degrading subjects. Among the most remarkable paintings of Géricault's short and tempestuous life, these images explore various forms of madness. Beautifully painted, some of them reminiscent of the insightful portraits by the mature Rembrandt, the likenesses are both terrifying and pathetic. These are memorable likenesses - painted with a sober, tempered palette and a spontaneous, free, heavily loaded brush. These works have never been surpassed for their incisive exploration of the madness that Géricault thought of not as a sort of extraneous invasion of the soul but as something intrinsic to the human mind.

Géricault's famous Raft of the Medusa revealed his abilities to plan out and complete a vast and ambitious history painting. The story of the raft was a topical subject and thus something that would have been disdained by many earlier painters. A notorious event, involving political corruption and scandal, since the incompetent captain owed his job to his allegiance to the French monarchy, it was the sort of horrific subject that interested Géricault and his contemporaries. Moreover, the ordeal of the victims involved a titanic struggle against the forces of nature, brilliantly shown in the painting by the immense, stormy sea, and the powerless occupants of the raft. The unequal struggle of man against nature was a theme that fascinated many of the best painters of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Géricault's early death, caused by a fall from a horse in 1824, ended a brilliant and original career.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya


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