Théodore Géricault

Théodore Géricault (Rouen 1791 - 1824 Paris)

“Etude de jeune homme mortSketch for The Raft of the Medusa, 1818

Pencil on paper, unevenly trimmed, 18.5 x 26.5 cm
Annotated lower left by another hand Dessin de Gericault

Provenance:
Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (inscription on the old mount)
Galerie d’art Paul Prouté, Paris
Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox Ltd., London (1979)
Private collection, England

Exhibited:
Nineteenth Century French Drawings, London, Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, 13 June-14 July, 1979,
no. 6

Literature:
Germain Bazin, Théodore Géricault, II, Paris 1987, p. 416, no. 277

 

The wreck of the French frigate Méduse off the West African coast in 1816 engendered a public outcry in France. The disaster was attributed to government negligence and corruption, causing enormous embarrassment for the recently restored monarchy. The Minister of the Navy was dismissed and the frigate’s captain sentenced to three years in prison. Since the frigate carried only six lifeboats for the four hundred passengers and crew members on board, the captain ordered that a large raft be built to accommodate the remaining one hundred and fifty people. When the raft was rescued after thirteen days at sea, only fifteen people were still alive. One survivor[1] provided an account of the scenes of unprecedented horror that unfolded on the raft: the fight for survival – in which the naval officers used armed force to secure the safest places at the centre of the raft – ended in violence, murder and cannibalism. The account made it shockingly clear how quickly the rules of civilized coexistence can break down in a crisis situation. When Géricault presented his monumental, freshly completed painting at the Paris Salon in 1819 he was well aware that it could prove controversial and therefore exhibited it under the title Scène d’un naufrage [Shipwreck Scene]. Public reception of the painting was divided in Paris but when it was exhibited in London shortly afterwards it made the young painter famous in Europe. The painting, which is now in the collection of the Louvre in Paris, ranks as one of the masterpieces of French Romantic painting.

Fig. 1 Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, oil on canvas, 91 x 716 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre

Fig. 1 Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, oil on canvas, 91 x 716 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre

Géricault produced an important body of preparatory drawings for the painting. Some of these are compositional studies that experiment with the complex arrangement of the many figures on the raft. Others, as here, explore the gestures and poses of individual figures. Géricault used a wide range of models – friends, survivors of the disaster, and professional models, as well as the bodies of the dead and the dying which he studied in hospitals, morgues and even in his studio. The present pencil study of a young man’s corpse is one of these studies and was made in preparation for the important figure group depicted in the lower left corner of the painting, a father mourning his dead son.[2] Through his unflinching realism, which was based on intensive research and the meticulous study of nature, Géricault sought to assure the viewer’s empathy with the subject matter he depicted.

Fig. 2 Detail of The Raft of the Medusa

Fig. 2 Detail of The Raft of the Medusa

To help him simulate the dead man’s position on the raft, Géricault built a structure on which he laid his model – the corpse of a young man – and arranged it in the position it would occupy in the painting. He then made the present, delicately worked pencil study with its carefully modulated areas of light and shadow. The figure occurs in a very similar position in the finished painting, albeit with slight differences, chiefly in the placement of the arms and the angle of the head. Géricault made a number of detailed preparatory studies for the father-and-son figure group. They are recorded in the literature under the title Étude du père tenant son fils mort sur ses genoux. That figure group occupies a pivotal role in the composition, for it encapsulates the full tragedy of the scene. While other survivors are reaching towards the distant silhouette of the ship that suggests rescue is at hand, the despairing father stares out of the canvas as if to say that, even if rescue is near, nothing can change the past.

Géricault drew on a significant number of art-historical sources for The Raft of the Medusa, notably Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and paintings depicting the Descent from the Cross and the Entombment by Rubens.

This pencil study was at one time in the collection of the French sculptor Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788-1856). David d’Angers executed a portrait medallion of Théodore Géricault posthumously in 1830.

We are grateful to Professor Gregor Wedekind[3], University of Mainz, and to Professor Jörg Trempler, University of Passau, for their contribution.


[1] Jean-Baptiste H. Savigny and Alexandre Corréard, Der Schiffbruch der Fregatte Medusa, Berlin 2005; see also Lorenz Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, London 1972.

[2] This Etude de jeune homme mort is particularly closely related to a study of the same subject now in the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen. Both studies are from the same group of drawings. See Étude du père tenant son fils mort sur ses genoux, pencil and black chalk on grey-blue paper. Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. AG.1905.4.1.

[3] Gregor Wedekind, Géricault, Images of Life and Death, exhib. cat., Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle 2013-4 and Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 2014.

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