Theodore Gericault was born on the 26th September 1791 and died on the 26th January 1824. He was an extremely influential French artist who is best known for “The Raft of the Medusa.” He died tragically young but still managed to become a pioneer of the Romantic Movement.
Carle Vernet educated Gericault in the tradition of English sporting art. He was also taught the art of figure composition by Pierre-Narcisse Guerin, a classicist who completely disagreed with his student’s exuberant and impulsive temperament, however recognised his fabulous talent.
Gericault left the class environment as soon as he could choosing to study at the Louvre. While being educated at the Louvre Gericault copied and studied the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, Velazquez, Titian and Rembrandt. He spent the years between 1810 to 1815 at the Louvre where he found a new vigour and excitement which captured his interests much more than the prevailing school of Neoclassicism.
“The Charging Chasseur” exhibited in 1812 was the first major success for Gericault. This painting showed the people of Paris his interest in depicting contemporary subject matter. The painting clearly shows an influence of Rubens and was a monumental work for Gericault. In 1814 Gericault exhibited the “Wounded Cuirassier” which was not as well received but conveys a new political aspect of his work. In the following few years Gericault’s work gained in drama and a new expressive and Romantic force became evident.
Gericault then made a visit to Florence, Rome and Naples and a passion and excitement for the works of Michelangelo evolved. The city of Rome itself was inspiration and Gericault prepared an epic composition which promised to be unparalleled in its composition and abstracted theme. Gericault never completed this painting and decided to return to France.
After his return to France he went back to military themes and began to undertake his biggest and most impressive work “The Raft of the Medusa.” This painting depicted the aftermath and horror of a shipwreck in which the captain had left the passengers to die. The shipwreck Meduse was a national scandal, Gericault managed to capture a contemporary tragedy on a truly monumental scale. Gericault studied rotting body parts to experience firsthand the sights, colours and smells of death. The painting can also be perceived as man’s struggle with nature.
The subject matter and composition are in great contrast with each other making the painting a bridge between Neoclassicism and Romanticism.