In the 1820's and 30's if you had visited the studios of artists across Britain and Europe, amongst the various casts and other studio props you might very likely have seen hung on the wall, a reproduction death mask. It would have been of a very gaunt face, almost skull like and with a straggly beard, the face of a man who has died after a long drawn out and debilitating illness. Those artists of the time who had the mask on their walls, or near their easel used it almost as an icon, a talisman of good luck and a symbol of their artistic aspirations. The thin worn face was that of Théodore Géricault.
Born in Rouen in 1791, the son of a lawyer, he was an early Romantic painter inspiring such artists as Delacroix and Chassériau, and was seen as representing great promise, and yet also unfulfilled ambition. He was trained in the studio of Pierre Narcisse Guérin, but did a great deal of study on his own account, copying in the Louvre artists such as Rubens, Velázquez, Titian and others. Like so many other French artists of this period he seems to have rebelled against his masters approach to art, who in turn held a disparaging opinion of him as an artist, and in this he was similar to Girodet who I wrote about recently. In fact in some respects he might be considered as Girodet with taste.
|The actual Raft of the Medusa. A lithograph based on the carpenters drawings of the raft he built. Wikipedia Commons.|
He didn't have any contact with the painters of the Neo-Classic 'old brigade' such as David and Ingres, but he would have been only too well aware of their work and influence; he turned away from them and had the touch of genius to turn the progress of French painting along a different route. His first major painting to be exhibited in 1812 was Chasseur on Horseback followed by The Wounded Chasseur, both of which were popular at the salon but which left the artist dissatisfied. Above all Géricault was indecisive about what projects he wanted to pursue, often setting himself a task and then abandoning it while half finished or only in the preliminary stages.
Maybe he was undecided about being a painter at all, a pretty unpredictable profession at the best of times. He decided to join the army and for a short time was garrisoned at Versailles. After a failed love affair he left for Rome, (how he got out of the army I don't know ) to study the great Italian masters. He started a large canvas of the Barbari Horses, but never finished it, starting a trend of unfinished projects.
|Théodore Géricault. (1791 - 1824) Wikipedia Commons|
As the ship was slowly sinking the ships carpenter was able to quickly make a raft from the ships timbers and ropes, and everyone on board was able to take to the raft, setting out on rough seas with just a few barrels of water and wine and little food. There were one hundred and forty seven people at the start of the perilous voyage, only fifteen survived after thirteen days on the raft. There had been fighting between groups armed with knives and cutlasses, barrels of precious water had been lost to the waves in the tumult of violence, the weak had been killed and thrown overboard, others had been swept away in stormy seas and eventually the canibalism the people had been forced to resort to to stay alive helped project the story to the forefront of public attention. The failings of incompetent public servants was held to blame, who were percived as ancien régime placeholders, merely in office because they were favoured by the returned monarchy. And so the scandal flared,
When preparing himself for the work Géricault approached the task like a journalist, finding and interviewing two of the survivors, getting the carpenter who had survived to make a model of the raft from memory and reading any accounts he could find about the tragedy, finally resorting to studying corpses at the local morgue to get the 'look' of death correct. This went to even creepier lengths, where Géricault, shaven headed (to prevent him leaving the studio on self indulgent nights out) obtained the guillotined head of a criminal and painted studies from it. These and a number of studies of severed arms and legs are, however unpleasant, really powerful works. Whether he was successful in capturing the look of death is debatable. Like Girodet before him, his palette is dominated by greens, greys and muddy browns, and subsequently all the figures look deathly. Perhaps he painted corpses to get into a state of mind, to conjure the atmosphere that reigned on the raft itself.
|Théodore Géricault. The Raft of the Medusa. The figure lying face down with arm extended in the centre of the painting was modelled by Eugéne Delacroix.|
|A bronze reproduction of the death mask. The mask has been altered during the mould making stage to include the open eyes. Wikipedia Commons.|
Although Géricault made attempts to paint another large canvas they all came to nothing. The 'Raft' had made money in a travelling show in England, but the artist had gone through bouts of depression and ill health. Back in Paris he indulged his love of riding fast horses, and one evening as he was waiting for the city gate to be opened as he returned from the country, his horse threw him and he landed on his back. The art critic Kenneth Clark suggests the injuries he received caused a cancer of the spine, but others have suggested that the illness that killed him was tuberculosis. That gaunt sunken face of the death mask gives us no clues, for either illness could have been the cause, but the mask went on not just to represent Géricault but the actual ambition of subsequent artists, it was a kind of Romantic manifesto in the shape of a death mask.