Theodore Gericault, born September 26, 1791, thought and painted big. The Raft of the Medusa (above) from 1819 stretches 23 feet wide and 16 feet high. Standing in front of it in the Louvre, you feel like you’re a castaway yourself, broiling under the sun and dying of hunger and thirst, just as someone cries out that a ship has been sighted. Outraged by the tale of the ship Medusa and how it’s incompetent captain led those people to misery, Gericault painted pure political rage on a grand scale. He sketched bodies in morgues to get the proper appearance of decay. The swirling classical nudes recall the figures of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment that Gericault had seen just a few years before during his travels in Italy. Upon The Raft of Medusa rode the tidal wave of Romanticism. Even Eugene Delacroix, Gericault’s fellow Romantic pioneer, hopped aboard, posing for the figure face down front and center.
Gericault could work on an intimate scale as well. When his friend, the pioneering psychologist Dr. E.J. Georget, asked him to paint portraits of some of his patients showing unique psychological conditions, Gericault showed that he could capture even the most tortured of souls. His Man with Delusions of Military Command (above), from 1819-1822, sympathetically and sensitively reproduces the troubled countenance of the unfortunate. Gericault painted kleptomaniacs and other conditions with equal insight, perhaps thanks to his own family’s history of psychological disorders and his own inner demons.
Gericault died in 1824 after years of chronic tuberculosis. In works such as The Wreck (above), Gericault presents his hopelessness. The Wreck may have been left unfinished at Gericault’s death, or he may have simply chosen to let the freer brushstrokes stand as testament to his emotional state. Even at the end, Gericault thought big, working on designs for large canvases titled Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition and African Slave Trade that he didn’t live long enough to realize. Gericault “lives” big even in death, residing in the most famous cemetery in the world—Pere Lachaise—with Delacroix, David, Proust, Wilde, and even Jim Morrison, among so many others.
(BTW, the recently published The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century by Jonathan Miles promises to tell not only the story of the doomed Medusa but also the wide-ranging cultural impact of the incident, including Gericault's painting.)