The Artist {1791 - 1824}

With titles such as "HEADS OF EXECUTED MEN" the paintings of Gericault are not for the squeamish. At a time when artists were beginning to draw from life Gericault drew from death. He was a frequent visitor to the Place de la Revolution where the guillotine supplied him with a rich supply of cadavers whereby he came to excel at drawing the human body. All of his canvases are heavy with cloud and always sombre. Under the brush of Gericault "THE DERBY AT EPSOM" becomes a doom-laden ritual. "CAVALIER" has a grim cavalry officer slashing at an unseen enemy and while "THE AQUADUCT" painted by any other artist would be a rural idyll,Gericault manages to conjure up visions of Trolls and Ogres. It's not what you see, it's what you don't see. So, it's no surprise to learn that Gericault was a passionate, emotional and brooding man with a deep interest in the politics of post-revolutionary France. All these things are reflected in all of his paintings but none so more than his masterpiece of the raft.

In his quest to produce as authentic a representation of the event as possible, Gericault sought out two survivors of the raft, Correard and Savigny, and not content with their verbal description he persuaded them to pose for the tableau. It can only be guessed as to the feelings of the two men when they once again stepped aboard the raft of the Medusa but they are the two figures at the head of the raft pointing towards the ship in the distance.

However, the political scandal as much as the drama itself was his inspiration and the painting was known to be a critique of the government of the time. There have been several other allegories attached to the painting but I think that this type of analysis can be taken too far. The suggestion that it is the allegory of a romantic soul on the sea of life seems to me to be the ramblings of an art critic justifying his position.

When the great Ingres saw the painting he declared it to be laid and hideux { ugly and hideous } but Delacroix called it sublime. It could be said that both views are true in that it is a sublime representation of an ugly and hideous subject matter.

Gericault, particularly in his latter years, to paraphrase Ann Widdecombe's succinct expression, had about him "something of the night" but it was not always like that and in his younger days the artist was quite the man about town ---- a "jeunesse doree" of the French capital. The great love of his life was Alexandrine-Modeste Caruel, an older woman who was not only married but also had two young children and worse still was the painter's aunt. Nevertheless, his love was reciprocated and the pair carried on a passionate and clandestine love affair. In the midst of their tumultuous affair Gericault left to spend a year in Italy, studying art and painting but his intention was doubtless to escape from their semi-incestuous relationship. If that was his intention then it failed miserably, as he returned to Paris prematurely and resumed their affair immediately. Their doomed love affair ended abruptly when Alexandrine fell pregnant. The baby, born in 1818, was christened Georges-Hippolyte and given into the care of the family doctor who then sent the child to Normandy where he was raised in obscurity.

Whether Gericault would have produced anything to rival his magnum opus if he had not met Alexandrine is open to conjecture but the fact remains that his subjects became even darker in mood after the love affair finished. Gericault appeared to have little interest in anything but painting and his being diagnosed as having tuberculosis of the spine began a decline from which he never recovered. In 1820, in common with Eugene Delacroix and other forerunners of the embryonic artist's community, Gericault moved into the then pastoral village of Montmartre. He rented an atelier in the Chausee des Martyrs where his neighbour was another painter, Carle Vernet, whose most famous work is the painting of the resistance at Porte de Clichy, the postscript to the battle of the Nations. The Montmartre of Gericault's day is barely recognisable to the Montmartre of today and was at that time a place of windmills and gypsum quarries. Gericault often sketched the horses at work and has left a painting called Le Four a Platre { Louvre }, a representation of a working day at the quarries which the artist has painted in his typical moody manner ------hardly representative of the comic-opera Montmartre as it likes to be styled.
There was a point at which Gericault seemed bent on self-destruction and he got his wish when he fell from his horse at the Barriere des Martyrs { now Place Pigalle }. The fall exacerbated his illness to such an extent that it hastened his death at the age of 32 leaving only his work to remember him by.

That's not quite the case for visitors to Pere Lachaise cemetery in Belleville, where his grave can be found with his most famous painting standing out in bas-relief upon his monument. Georges-Hippolyte never met his parents despite appeals to Alexandrine who refused his entreaties but he paid for a tiny railing around his father's tomb distinctive by its numerous G's with an arrow through each one.



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