Theodore Gericault

Portrait of Theodore Gericault

Theodore Gericault was a French painter and lithographer. Sadly he died young but he is still regarded as one of the pioneers of the Romantic Movement in France. He was born in Rouen on 26th September 1791 and died in Paris on 26th January 1824 aged 32. 

Major Works

“Charging Chasseur” (1812)
“Cattle Market” (1817-20)
“The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19)
“Portrait of Mustapha” (1819-20)
“The Piper” (1821)

Biography Timeline

Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault was born on 26th September 1791 in Rouen, France. His middle-class parents were wealthy and encouraged him in art from a very young age.

1797: The Géricault family moves to Paris when his father gains a job in the family tobacco business and his son’s abilities are recognised by the painter and art dealer Jean Louis Laneuville who lives nearby.

1808: He begins an apprenticeship with Carle Vernet, a Neoclassical painter, who shares the young boy’s fascination with horses and teaches him how to capture animal movement. Vernet was a dandy and Géricault, never modest, begins to feel he is a better artist than his tutor.

1810: He begins studying with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in his studio where he masters composition and classicist figure construction. He meets another student there, Eugéne Delacroix and they become lasting friends. He studies the work of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and visits the Louvre Gallery where he copies paintings by Rubens, Velázquez, Titian, and Rembrandt. He spends a lot of time at Versailles where he is able to visit the stables and study the anatomy of horses.

1812: He paints “The Charging Chasseur” set in a smoke ridden battlefield. It is exhibited at the Paris Salon to some success and he then produces a series of small studies of horses and cavalrymen.

1814: He exhibits “Wounded Cuirassier” at the Salon and the critics are shocked by the sombre subject and subdued colours. Disappointed with the reaction he joins the army and serves for a time in the garrison at Versailles.

1815: When the Emperor Napoleon returns from Elba and takes up power again Gericault feels betrayed and disgusted by the cowardice of the King’s army, who deserted King Louis the Sixteenth during the Napoleonic invasion. He then joins the French Musketeers and helps escort the desperate King to safety in Belgium. However, always prone to wild changes of mood and ideas, he then sides with the Liberal opposition.

1816: He visits Florence, Rome and Naples in Italy to get away from his Aunt whom he has fallen in love with and becomes obsessed with the work of Michelangelo and Baroque Art. He begins work on a frieze painting entitled “Race of the Barberi Horses” in Rome but it is never completed and it is sent back to France.

1817: He begins painting “Cattle Market”.

1818: He returns from Italy and makes lithographs of various military subjects. Gericault paints his most famous work “The Raft of the Medusa” which depicts the shipwreck of the French ship “Meduse” in 1816. 150 set off from the wreck on a raft but only 15 survive and there were tales of cannibalism and madness surrounding the event and it became a national scandal.

1819: The “Raft of the Medusa” is exhibited at the Salon and the failure of the French government to rescue the people is quickly seen by viewers as an allegory for the inabilities of the corrupt restored French Monarchy as the Captain who had left people to die and saved himself got his position from the Bourbon Monarch himself. Not surprisingly the painting is greeted with open hostility by the Government. The Romantics also see it as man’s struggle with nature and Delacroix was so impressed with the theme that he had posed as one of the dying figures. 

1820: Disappointed with the reception the “The Raft of the Medusa” receives in France Géricault takes the painting to England where it is a sensational success. He tours England for two years gaining widespread fame and fortune. He produces a series of lithographs, watercolours, and oils of jockeys and horses. Whilst in London he witnesses first-hand the urban poverty and makes drawings published as lithographs of these scenes.

1821: He paints “The Derby of Epsom”.

1822: After his return to France he studies patients of one of his friends, Dr Etienne-Jean Georget, who was a pioneer in psychiatric medicine. Originally there were ten portraits of people with different afflictions at the asylum of Salpetriere in Paris but only five remain, including “Insane Woman”, “Kleptomania” and “Delusion of Military Command”. These works are very well received.

1824: Gericault, well known for his extravagant clothes, love of horses and riding fast suffers another serious riding accident which exacerbates his tubercular condition. 

Theodore Gericault died on 26th January 1824 in Paris, France. After numerous riding accidents and chronic tubercular infections his health had declined during a long period of suffering. He was buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris where there is a bronze figure of him, brush in hand, with a relief of “The Raft of the Medusa” behind.