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30 September 2020updated 07 Oct 2020 10:10am

Théodore Géricault’s soul-sick scenery

In the only landscapes he painted, the Romantic artist was unable to hide his many troubles.

By Michael Prodger

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) was both the archetypal painter and the archetypal personality of the Romantic age. He died young and lingeringly after a tumultuous life, was so handsome that it was said – apocryphally – that he shaved his head to make himself less attractive to women, and was both hugely talented and widely misunderstood. The work for which he is best known, the gargantuan The Raft of the Medusa (1819), showing the survivors of a shipwreck who were forced to resort to cannibalism, is at once a paean to death and to hope, and a recoiling at implacable nature and man’s inherent bestiality. But he also painted the glamour and the failure of the Napoleonic dream, the severed heads of executed criminals, the faces of the inhabitants of an asylum for the insane, and any number of horses – spirited and fretting – under lowering skies (a series of riding accidents was to contribute to his death).

Géricault’s conception of art was that it should be epic and weighty, and once said that, “Real paintings must be done with buckets of colour on walls 100ft long.” Although he couldn’t paint to that scale, almost his entire output is nevertheless the product of an unquiet mind.

In the midst of this, in 1818, he painted a set of incongruous pictures: three large landscape panels depicting the times of the day – Morning, Noon and Evening, with Night either never painted or lost. They are classical scenes, dotted with Roman ruins and antique figures, that owe a great deal to the often limpid landscapes, full of learned allusions, painted by Claude Lorrain (1600-82). Claude’s roseate pictures, however, are an emotional world apart from Géricault’s sturm und drang.

As can be seen in this picture, Morning or Landscape with Fishermen, from the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Géricault’s intention was neither pastiche nor mimetic. The paintings have a melancholic and elegiac overlay; indeed, in their sombre colouring and enigmatic figures they verge on the sinister. Noon, for example, could be mistaken for an idyll but for a tree from which, as a salutary warning, hang the limbs of a dead bandit. If this is Arcadia, then it comes with a menacing edge.

The series is not really about landscape but about art itself. Given the scale of the pictures they were probably intended as a decorative scheme for a salon, where the idea of showing the times of day was an old one. And Géricault’s pictorial references include not just Claude, but Poussin, Michelangelo and classical statuary, too. At the time he painted them he was at the very forefront of the French avant-garde, but the landscapes show him eager to measure himself against the old masters.

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There is no record of who commissioned the pictures, though it is likely they were intended for the Château du Grand-Chesnay, the country home of his uncle and aunt next to the Palace of Versailles. This would have been no straightforward business, however. Sometime in 1814-15, Géricault began an affair with his aunt, Alexandrine-Modeste Caruel de Saint-Martin, who was 28 years younger than her husband and eight years older than the painter. The pictures may have been intended for his incestuous lover.

A year or so after the liaison began, Géricault left for Italy to study, which might also have been a way of putting distance between himself and the affair. He returned from Rome in 1817, in such haste that he rolled up his canvases with the paint still wet (the reason for his hurry is unknown). In July of 1818, the canvas for Morning was delivered to his studio in Paris and the following month Alexandrine-Modeste gave birth to their son, Georges-Hippolyte. Nothing is known of the subsequent relations between the lovers (though the boy was fated to live out his life in seclusion), but if the landscapes were once intended for her home, the cuckolded husband would never have allowed them to be hung there.

It is of course impossible to say if guilt, scandal and disgrace are intentional presences in the three landscapes, but they must have been in Géricault’s mind as he worked. That he was in a febrile and morbid mental state was certain. Shortly before he started the landscapes, he had made preparatory drawings for a picture showing the grisly true-life murder of a magistrate named Fualdès who had his throat slit before he was thrown into the river Aveyron. The figures of the fishermen in Morning bear a strong resemblance to his sketches of the murderers disposing of the body.

Géricault put the scheme aside to paint the terrifying and unflinching series of severed heads and limbs that served as preparatory works to douse The Raft of the Medusa in the atmosphere of death. He intended this grand painting – again of an inappropriately macabre subject – to make his name, but although it was well enough received when it was displayed at the Salon of 1819, it did not create the stir he’d hoped for. This, the affair with his aunt and the intensity and charnel house conditions of his studio life, led to a breakdown. Morning, then, may show the start of a new day, but for Géricault the dawn breaking on that grey and ragged scene also shone its cheerless light on a profoundly troubled soul.

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union