(b. 1791, Rouen, d. 1824, Paris)


French painter, one of the prime movers and most original figures of Romanticism. He studied in Paris with Carle Vernet and Pierre Guérin, but was influenced more by making copies of the Old Masters at the Louvre, developing in particular a passion for Rubens. In 1816-17 he was in Italy and there became an enthusiastic admirer of Michelangelo and the Baroque.

His ambitions as a history painter were frustrated by a lack of grand national themes after the fall of Napoleon, and he turned to a more subversive analysis of contemporary events. On his return to Paris he exhibited the picture for which he is most famous, The Raft of the Medusa (Louvre, Paris, 1819), which although it was awarded a medal at the Salon, created a furore both on account of its realistic treatment of a horrific event and because of its political implications (it depicts the ordeal of the survivors of the shipwreck of the Medusa in 1816, a disaster ascribed by some to government incompetence). The picture, which was remarkably original in treating a contemporary event with epic grandeur, also had a 'succes de scandale' in England, where Géricault spent the years 1820-22. He painted jockeys and horse races (Derby at Epson, Louvre, 1821) and was one of the first to introduce English painting to the notice of French artists (he was particularly enthusiastic about Constable and Bonington).

Géricault was a passionate horseman and his death at the age of 33 was brought on by a riding accident. In his temperament and lifestyle as well as his work he ranks (like Byron, for example) as an archetypal Romantic artist. His tempestuous career lasted little more than a decade and in that time he displayed a meteoric and many-sided genius. His love of stirring action, his sense of swirling movement, his energetic handling of paint, and his taste for the macabre were all to become features of Romanticism. He was, at the same time forward-looking in his realism: he made studies from corpses and severed limbs for The Raft of the Medusa and painted an extraordinary series of portraits of mental patients in the clinic of his friend Dr Georget, one of the pioneers of humane treatment for the insane (A Kleptomaniac, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Ghent, c. 1822-23). His work had enormous influence, most notably on Delacroix.

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