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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Theodore Gericault was one of the most signficant members of the Romanticist art movement which added atmosphere and emotion to the earlier neoclassical styles.

This was an artist whose career was curtailed at a young age, but despite this was able to significantly impact the direction of French art during the 19th century. In comparison to his style and accomplishments within the Romanticist movement, his work more resembles those who influenced him, namely Michelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens. The work of Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, Francisco de Goya and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot are also clearly related to his own.

When it comes to the most distinctive and celebrated artists in history, Jean–Louis André Theodore Gericault has to be mentioned. The French-born paint master is popularly known for pioneering the Romantic Movement through art. He is well identified by his famous painting, the Raft of the Medusa, produced in 1818 and released in 1819. In the history books of painting and lithography, Theodore Gericault is a voluminous name. This is because of his accomplishments as an artist. His achievements were not only in producing exceptional artwork but also through inspiring many artists of his generation and this generation too. Theodore Gericault was born in 1791 in Rouen, France. As a young man, Theodore Gericault got interested in painting as he discovered that he was talented.

He decided to learn about how to make it as an artist. He got educated by Carle Vernet about English Art and by Pierre Guerin about Classical Art. Theodore Gericault also studied art at the Louvre, where he was able to learn from painting works by Rembrandt, Titian, and Rubens. Louvre provided Theodore with the opportunity to polish his painting skills before he could dive into professional art.

He was able to familiarise himself with different genres of painting art such as drawings of the horse anatomy and the human life. The Hudson River School was a North American art movement focusing on landscape painting with clear influences directly from Romanticism. You will therefore find clear similarities between the likes of Gericault, Constable, Turner plus the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole.

Theodore's Success Story

After leaving Louvre, Mr. Gericault got into professional painting. His real breakthrough came in 1812 when his painting, the Charging Chasseur, was exhibited at a major artistic event in Paris Salon. The paintwork demonstrated his artistic touch having expressed elements of Rubens in the drawings. 1812 formed a great year for Theodore's painting journey, especially in horse drawings. He took an interest in specialising in horse painting among other genres. In 1814, Theodore Gericault produced another masterpiece, the Wounded Cuirassier. The painting was also exhibited at the Paris Salon. This work saw Theodore put intensive efforts to produce quality work. Inasmuch as the reception was good, it wasn't very impressive like for his 1812 painting. You can learn more about the artist's life and career in our Gericault biography.

After the production of this painting, Theodore Gericault took an interest in figure construction and wanted to produce more paintings with human figures. In 1816, Theodore took a trip to Florence, Italy. He got inspired by the Italian culture and did a monumental canvas known as the Race of the Barberi Horses. Even though he did not complete the painting, it's believed to be a masterpiece that stirred many emotions in the painting world. Having a passion for military themes, Theodore took an interest in military classes, and he was able to develop quality artistic skills in regard top military themes. In 1818, Theodore produced what many consider his biggest accomplishment, the Raft of the Medusa. The painting describes the aftermath of a shipwreck that hit France.

In this event, the captain of the sheep left his passengers and members of the crew to die in the wreck. Theodore was able to express the situation in the military setting in France and other parts of Europe. In 1818, the paintwork became the center of attention as it created a national scandal. The drawing's notoriety was clearly aggressive in stemming corruption. On a positive note, the paintwork dramatised the struggles that common people, especially of French origin, face against nature. The painting got different artists inspired and some came up with similar drawings. Since the artistic work featured neoclassicism, Antrine-Jean Gros produced the Last Judgment, paintwork inspired by Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa and Watson and the Shark, painted by John Singleton. On a national scale, the paintwork stirred political controversies when it was first brought to the Paris Salon exhibition in 1819.

In 1820, the paint work was taken to England under the company of Theodore. This is where the artwork received greater praise than in France, and the artist was celebrated for the quality of the drawing. Theodore Gericault got the appraisal that he never got at home in Paris and his artwork was the talk of London. Many art enthusiasts wouldn't help but admire his talent. He was not only physically talented as a painter, but he also had the understanding of different artistic messages such as human life and romance.

While in London, Theodore witnessed the struggle and poverty situation of the country, and he was able to express his assessment by painting a number of art pieces. He published a number of lithographs which highlighted his observations. He was able to develop a strong artistic connection with Chalet, a caricaturist and lithographer. Theodore Gericault got back to France and he continued to paint. He was inspired to produce a series of 10 drawings. Among the ten, the most celebrated is the Insane Woman. The portrait is well known for its Bravura style of expressive realism in art history. The Insane Woman painting shows how expressive Theodore was in describing the mentally ill.

Currently, the painting is housed in Lyon, France at the Beaux-Arts. This painting was (and is still) celebrated because of the message expressed. The portrait shows physical facts that the mentally-ill go through. The passion to come up with the Insane Woman was derived from Theodore's experience. Having conducted studies in a few mental institutions in Paris, Theodore had the idea of how the situation was like. Since Theodore was adamant about the artistic understanding of human life, he pressed on and produced paintings that artists and paint enthusiasts could identify with. He painted incredible still-life paintwork that focused on hundreds of heads and several limbs of various figures in the society.

Still-life depicted inanimate expression, especially, those that relate with nature. After returning back home, Theodore produced another paintwork, the Derby of Epsom, in 1821. Commonly known as the Horse Race, the Derby of Epsom was a great achievement for Theodore Gericault. The masterpiece demonstrated Theodore’s massive talent in horse painting. The painting was later procured by Musee du Louvre. Measuring 92cm by 123cm, the Horse Race painting continues to inspire many artists up to date.

What were Theodore's Artistic Strength and Style?

The success of Theodore Gericault in the painting world is attributed to many factors. To begin with, Theodore Gericault was an observant artist and majority of his works are contemporary. He was able to observe the current events and relate them to the realities of what human beings go through. This style made him effective in delivering paintworks such as the Insane Woman and the Raft of the Medusa. Secondly, Theodore was able to learn from the best, in particular, Michelangelo. The old masters were important in Theodore’s use of contrast, energetic descriptions, and artistic atmosphere in his pieces. Theodore Gericault was able to develop a neoclassical painting style by learning from the best.

Thirdly, Theodore had a deep understanding of romance as a subject, and he was attentive to minor exotic, sublime, and emotional romantic elements. He was able to relate his art pieces with romantic masters such as Ingres and David. To him, subjective and emotional response counted, and he was able to stir the right artistic response from the audience. Looking at his style of painting, it’s clear that his technique was different and unique. His art pieces put into focus a number of aspects, including composition, subject matter, colour palette, figure work, and brushwork.

The composition featured physical patterns, and his subject was majorly neoclassicism and romance. His figure works concentrated on live models such as horses and for colour palettes, he used an array of colours such as light red, peach, and black. As for the brushwork, he used small brushed and applied thin paint.

Theodore Gericault and the Romantic Movement

To many art lovers, the Romantic Movement was perceived as a reaction of Theodore Gericault to the neoclassical movement and to his old masters, Michelangelo. As a romantic artist, Theodore gave attention to small details pertaining to human relationships and emotional response. His pieces such as the Derby of Epsom give a historical account of unsung romance among the commoners. He was able to glorify romance by enriching his portrait with themes of emotion, divinity, and flirt.

To Theodore, the romance was a subject that he had to glorify through what he knew best. Painting provided him with the opportunity to clearly display his literary and unusual romantic content. Theodore Gericault looked at romance as a field where one can be creative and make an imaginative statement. In this case, his ideas are reflected on the pieces of canvas that the audience observes and get to connect to his message.

About Theodore Gericault's Legacy

Theodore wonderful approach in the field of art, especially painting, aided in shaping the Romantic Artistic Movement in France and the rest of the world. His quality choice of contemporary art subjects, inspired by a dramatic expression, got a number of artists inspired. Notable ones are Ary Shaffer and Eugene Delacroix, both romantic painters. Basically, Theodore Gericault used the human body as a physical symbol that explains more about the nature of the soul. Using the physical body, Theodore, Shaffer, and Delacroix were able to express the contents of the soul. The paintings were target specifics and people could connect with them. Another batch of artists that were inspired by Theodore Gericault includes Amedeo Modigliani and Vincent Van Gogh. These artists also produced artworks with a romantic-touch, inspired by Theodore Gericault's pieces.

Overall, the Raft of Medusa is the highlight of Theodore's legacy and the Romantic Movement as a genre as the painting inspired artists such as Max Ernst, Vik Muniz, Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, Sandro Cinto and Peter Saul. The artists have drawn inspiration from Theodore's impressive pieces and career. Though he died (in 1824) after a short painting career, Theodore Gericault's legacy lives on. His impact on modern art, especially the French painting history, is hugely relevant today. Considering his mastery of art and choice of subjects such as contemporary life, passion for horses, compassion for the vulnerable, and romance, Theodore Gericault is a legend in the field of paintwork and lithograph. Overall, Theodore’s work concentrated on pure observation, imagination, social awareness, and political sensibility. He continues to inspire many artists around the globe, and his memories live in his portraits.