Paris, late in 1819. A dull, dishonest time, grey with the defeat of Napoleon and the spirit of revolution.
After the exhibition at the Louvre closed, Th”odore G”ricault detached the vast canvas from its frame, rolled it up and sent it to the house of his friend Cogniet for storage. The twenty-seven-year-old artist was profoundly depressed, with good reason. His great painting, the result of two years labour, had failed to bring him the decisive public success he craved – its grandeur had been slighted, its theme misunderstood – and the twists of his emotional life could not be unknotted.
Looking over his friend’s shoulder, G”ricault was dismayed. `It’s not worth looking at,’ he muttered.
`I shall do better.’
If not better, then at least differently. G”ricault was as restless an artist as he was a man – a forceful and angry one too. Easy, decorative grace and smoothly elegant composition were no part of his aesthetic. He struggled to bring to the Western tradition of art a sense of energy, of pushing and pulling, of the surge of the wind and the clash of living forms against the elements – powers which could infuse the inert symmetries of the neoclassical rule book. He sweated to infuse a whiff of contemporary reality and physical excitement into the meticulously staged tableaux of his seniors David and Ingres. But he was never satisfied, never still. All he could think was, `I shall do better.’
Th”odore G”ricault was born in 1791, into a family that was prosperous, enterprising and middle class – his father was a lawyer turned accountant, of a moderately royalist persuasion. Most of G”ricault’s childhood was spent in Paris. He seems to have been an unremarkable schoolboy, mad about horses but not otherwise notably gifted. As a young man he emerged tall and poised, with a touch of the dandy, his manner either gently affectionate or stand-offish and insouciant. In 1808 his mother died, bequeathing him an annuity. Around this time he first expressed the wish to become an artist. Perhaps the cushion of financial independence encouraged such an ambition; perhaps it was initially a mere teenage dilettante’s whim. In either case, such a thing was unprecedented in his parents’ solidly professional dynasties, so, to avoid a painful rift with his elderly and conventional father, G”ricault enlisted his late mother’s brother, Uncle Caruel, in the fiction that he was undergoing an apprenticeship in the family business, a tobacco manufactory. Under this cover he began to attend the studio of Carle Vernet, a sophisticated painter of sporting scenes in a pseudo-English manner, under whose aegis he was soon tossing off copies and imitations. In a quest for more challenge, he then left Vernet for the more exigent Pierre Gu”rin, a follower of David, who could systematically teach him the science and theory of academic painting and construct his technique.
The complication was one at which even G”ricault’s contemporary Stendhal would have baulked. His sponsor, Uncle Caruel, was married to Alexandrine-Modeste, a beautiful and artistically sensitive young woman twenty-seven years his Junior, by whom he had two small children. To G”ricault, an only child saddened by the loss of his mother, she was at first more sister than aunt. Then, slowly but inexorably, their tendresse grew into desperate and incestuous sexual love. The situation, let alone the emotion, could never resolve itself.
The drama of Napoleon’s downfall made little apparent impact on G”ricault, who seems to have taken no side in the party political issues of the day. What now fulfilled him was a consuming sense of his destiny as an artist, and his sketches of these years show him excitedly exploring the lessons of Rubens, Titian and Caravaggio. Too soon for his abilities and experience, he began painting on an epic scale: his first significant work, dating from 1812, was three metres high and two metres wide. The Charging Chasseur depicts a horse rearing up in the thick of battle as its rider turns round and brandishes his sword – the composition is instantly arresting, if clumsy in detail. (The great master David was struck by its originality: as he walked through an exhibition, he stopped and stared at the canvas. `Where does that come from?’ he asked. `I don’t recognise the touch.’)
Horses obsessed G”ricault, despite (or because of) the fact that there was no tradition of portraying them in French art. It wasn’t so much their speed and grace that gripped his imagination as the charged thrust of their rumps, their whinnying fury, the brutality restive within their beauty – so wildly unlike the poised and disciplined beasts meticulously depicted by his British predecessor George Stubbs. He painted and drew his passion in all weathers, from all angles: in the National Gallery in London, A Horse Frightened by Thunder stands obediently in Stubbsian profile, but rigid in terror, every sinew stiffened as if electrified; in the Louvre, the Head of a White Horse, its forelock brushed gently to one side, suggests a note of vulnerable quivering sensibility otherwise absent from G”ricault’s art.
To make up for the time he had idled away in adolescence, G”ricault resolved on a vigorous programme of self-education:
Draw and paint the great masters of the ancient world.
Read and compose. Anatomy. Antiquity. Music. Italian.
Follow a course in the ancient world, every Tuesday and Saturday at 2 p.m.
December, figure painting at Dorcy’s. In the evenings, draw in the classical style and compose on some themes. Busy myself with music.
January, go to Gu”rin’s to learn how to follow nature in painting.
February, busy myself solely with the style of the Old Masters and compose without going out and remaining alone.
While he wrote out such curricula (the musical aspirations came to nothing), he may also have been trying to banish thoughts of Alexandrine. In 1816, as Europe opened its shutters for post-Napoleonic business, he decided to put a firm barrier between himself and his forbidden lover by travelling to Italy for two years. There, enlightened by the actual presence of the antiquities and Old Masters, he believed he could broaden his sensibility and escape his Parisian frustrations.
Leaving his affairs in immaculate order – G”ricault was his father’s son, no slovenly Bohemian – he passed from Florence to Rome, where he was overwhelmed by the grandeur of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. But within months he was scratchy with impatience. `Italy is a wonderful country to know,’ he wrote, `but it is not necessary to spend so much time there as is sometimes claimed: a single year, well employed, seems quite enough.’ He was lonely, homesick and unsure of himself, dwarfed and intimidated by the massive splendours of Rome.
To a friend in France he wrote gloomily: `I am disorientated and confused. I try in vain to find something steady; nothing seems solid, everything eludes me, deceives me. Our earthly hopes and desires are only idle fancies, our successes mere illusions that we try to grasp. If there is one thing certain in this world, it is pain. Suffering is real, pleasure only imaginary.’ A telling anecdote survives from this period. The sculptor Pradier visited G”ricault’s studio and praised one of his drawings. `You are a great artist and will be a master!’ he exclaimed. G”ricault was unnerved by the compliment: after Pradier had left, he stared and stared at the drawing until he became paranoically convinced that it was full of faults and that Pradier had been merely sarcastic. He sent a furious message to the sculptor demanding an apology or a duel. But Pradier hastened over to reassure him of his sincerity. `Is it really true then that I have talent?’ G”ricault pathetically asked him.
Yet his year in Italy was not unproductive, for he sketched and drew with brilliance and energy: not just copies of antiquities and Old Masters but landscapes, peasants, little scenes of local life. A larger project, which never came to fruition, was an epic treatment of the carnival race of the Barberi, in which riderless horses, cruelly provoked and goaded, would gallop panic-stricken down the Corso to the delight of hysterical crowds. G”ricault planned a vast canvas, ten metres wide, of this barbaric spectacle, but after many detailed compositional studies he suddenly lost confidence, abandoned the idea and returned to France. Why? He seems to have told friends that his father, still unhappy at what he knew of his son’s artistic leanings, had summoned him back, but it is more likely that some crisis in his relationship with Alexandrine was the prime cause and, shortly after his return to Paris in November 1817, she became pregnant by him.
In that same month a small volume entitled The Shipwreck of the `Medusa’ was published. Written collaboratively by Alexandre Corr”ard and Henri Savigny, it made a sensational impact throughout Europe with its account of an atrocious episode in which both authors had been participants. In July 1816 La M’duse, a French government frigate, part of a convoy carrying soldiers and emigrants to the colony of Senegal, made a foolish navigational error and ran aground in shallows off the West African coast. The fault clearly lay with the captain, a lackey of an aristocrat, with chums in the strongly royalist maritime ministry, whose appointment had clearly been a matter of unwarranted preferment. He failed to refloat the ship (largely because he refused to jettison its twenty-four-pounder guns) and after several days, as it began to break up, he ordered it to be abandoned. Six creaking lifeboats proved inadequate to accommodate all the passengers and crew, so a raft was constructed from planks lashed together with ropes. In the panic, the captain and senior officers took to the stronger boats, promising to tow the raft, but (whether by accident or design it was never established) the cables were lost, leaving it unnavigable in high and heavy seas.
A hundred and fifty people, including one woman inseparable from her husband, had been forced on to the raft, which measured just over twenty metres by seven. Nobody was put in command and no chart of the sea provided. There were no oars or rudder. Masts and sails were improvised, but to little effect. Under the weight of its load, the vessel did not float properly – fore and aft, the timbers were often submerged under as much as a metre of water – and a tiny supply of damp ship’s biscuit was exhausted within hours. Crowding made it difficult to move and impossible to sleep. On the first night, adrift in furious seas, twenty of those confined to the edges of the raft were lost – some swept into the shark-infested sea, some drowned as their legs became inextricably caught between the beams. On the second night there were two drunken mutinies against those officers, Savigny and Corr”ard among them, who attempted to control the raft from a raised platform at its centre and dole out rations: the ensuing battles caused another sixty-five deaths. On the third day, amid hallucinations and delirium, cannibalism began: those with the forbearance to resist the temptation to dine on their fellow sufferers were granted an extra ration of wine. By the seventh day, only twenty-seven remained living, of whom thirteen were totally insane or severely wounded or sick. The only ordinary food was provided by one small catch of flying fish. This could not be reasonably distributed, so it was decided that those with a fair chance of survival should be given priority. Because it was useless to waste food on those who were inevitably dying, the incapacitated were therefore executed – the woman, crippled by a broken thigh, among them. The horror of this cold-blooded slaughter of the innocent seems to have been purgatory. To symbolise the revulsion against any further violence, all weapons except for one sabre of last resort were thrown into the sea after the corpses.
For a further unimaginable six days, the remaining fifteen managed to stay alive and relatively calm, sheltering under a canopy from the relentless daytime heat, with only wine, excrement (`the urine of some of us was more agreeable than that of others’), sea water, human flesh, one lemon and thirty cloves of garlic as their nourishment. The sole ground for hope was a visit from a white butterfly, fluttering about the raft like Noah’s dove, a sign that land must be near. But no land was sighted. Finally, on the morning Of 17 July, a ship appeared on the horizon.
The sight of this vessel spread among us a joy which it would be difficult to describe. Fears, however, soon mixed with our hopes; we began to perceive that our raft, having very little elevation above the water, it was impossible to distinguish it at such a distance. We did all we could to make ourselves observed; we piled up our casks, at the top of which we fixed handkerchiefs of different colours. Unfortunately, in spite of all these signals, the brig disappeared. From the delirium of joy, we passed to that of dejection and grief.
Later in the day, however, the same ship – the Argus, part of the convoy in which the Medusa had originally been sailing – suddenly returned. It had been sent out to hunt for the raft and found fifteen living souls, of whom five died almost immediately.
One of the ten who survived to tell the tale was the ship’s surgeon, Henri Savigny, who made it his mission to record the truth of the terrible events, secure compensation for the survivors and bring the captain to justice for his gross dereliction of duty. On his return to France, Savigny submitted a report to the ministry. To the deep embarrassment of the government, this incriminating document was leaked to the press and caused an international sensation – four days after being published in the Journal des D”bats, it appeared in translation in The Times. Meanwhile a naval court quietly punished the Medusa’s captain with an absurdly lenient sentence, and the crony-stuffed ministry made clumsy and counter-productive attempts to cover up and damp down the affair. But Savigny joined with another survivor, the naval engineer Alexandre Corr”ard, and fought valiantly on. As a result of their campaign, both were dismissed from their government positions and harassed to the point of persecution. To further their cause and fan public support, they then wrote their book about the whole affair. It sold sensationally well in both France and England.
The ghastliness of this story haunted and inflamed G”ricault’s violent and morbid fancy. It also gave him an idea for a painting: G”ricault wanted public success, but he was never prepared to win it by flattering society ladies in their best frocks (as Ingres did) or churning out classical or mythical scenes to please the academicians (as Gu”rin did) His artistic vision – later generations would meaninglessly label it `Romantic’ – demanded matter more vital, dramatic and intense. He was searching for a subject which entailed the actualities of the age. Such art could sell: the pompous and inert canvases of Antoine-jean Gros, Napoleon’s official war artist, were hugely successful, and the fashionable and worldly Horace Vernet, G”ricault’s neighbour and son of his teacher Carle, made easy money out of pictures of military, humorous, sentimental and picturesque aspects of modern life. G”ricault knew himself to be a better, stronger artist than either of these – in order that the rest of the world should know that too, all he needed was the right scene. He had toyed with the depiction of the race of the Barberi horses and sketches also show him exploring the possibilities latent in another current newspaper story, the mysteriously motivated ritual disembowelling and murder of a retired magistrate in the Aveyron region. But G”ricault’s aim was not mere sensationalising illustration nor political agitprop. Unlike the facile Horace Vernet, he yearned to paint such events in the highest style, composing them as magnificently as the noblest of the Old Masters might have done: he wanted to elevate reality, not reproduce it. Somewhere in the turbulent story of the raft of the Medusa was the image that he required.
To help him find it, he turned to memories of Michelangelo’s apocalyptic Sistine Chapel, with its masses of terrified struggling figures; another inspiration must have been the popular genre of shipwreck painting, in particular the spectacular rescue scenes dreamed up by the expatriate American John Singleton Copley and much reproduced in engravings. But the more immediate influences were Corr”ard and Savigny themselves. G”ricault became friendly with the two men and through the early months of 1818, they helped him sketch his way through the entire saga – the mutiny, the eruption of cannibalism, the rescue – until he had explored every narrative and pictorial angle on the subject. In his studio he had Corr”ard, Savigny and the raft’s carpenter help him build a scale model of the vessel: the final canvas reproduces it in precise detail, down to the gaps between some of the timbers.
The detail of the painting was exhaustively researched: in the words of his biographer and cataloguer Charles Cl’ment, G”ricault compiled `a veritable dossier crammed with authentic proofs and documents’. He posed live models and copied relevant Old Masters; he travelled to Le Havre to observe marine skies and seascapes; he interviewed the other survivors of the raft; he visited hospitals to understand the faces of the dying and the dead; he even borrowed a severed head from the lunatic asylum and kept it on the roof of his studio for two weeks so that he could draw its features. Nothing was left to chance or fantasy: G”ricault was no dreamer. Yet what finally emerged in the completed painting is truer to art than it is to nature. The raft itself may be represented with literal photographic accuracy, but those on board are less the naked, pustulous, bearded, bruised, starved, sunburnt, demented men of the morning of 17 July 18I7 than figures posed to fulfill the traditional canons of composition within which G”ricault worked – figures which Michelangelo, Rubens or Caravaggio would have recognised and admired for their muscularity and sensuality.
In August 1818 this laboured process of preparation was interrupted when G”ricault was obliged to deal with the tragedy surrounding the birth of his son by Alexandrine. We do not know what names were called or what emotion boiled up in the scandal, but its consequences were clearly devastating. Uncle Caruel knew full well that he was not the father of his wife’s child and an irreparable rift erupted between his side of the family and the G”ricaults. The affair was hushed up – even the birth certificate registers the boy’s parents as unknown.
Georges-Hippolyte G”ricault was put into care and died in 1882, a pathetic solitary nonentity who did, however, venerate his father’s memory. Alexandrine was confined to nun-like seclusion in the country, where she seems to have remained for the rest of her days – she lived until she was ninety – and became deeply pious. It is doubtful that G”ricault saw her again.
Was it out of a sense of mortified penitence for his illicit incest that he shaved his head and shut the door on ordinary life before dedicating himself to his great self-imposed challenge? (Remember, too, that The Raft of the `Medusa’ was a commercial speculation: there was no patron underpinning it, no commission or even promise of a sale.) G”ricault was at one level a convivial, pleasure-loving man, but from November 1818 to July 1819 his existence became one of rigorous monastic simplicity. The concierge brought him food; occasionally, to keep his sanity, he might venture out for an evening, and a few friends and models dropped by to watch or to pose, but otherwise he was all artist, locked into his studio in the Faubourg du Roule and functioning at the absolute limit of his concentration, so long as daylight allowed.
In every respect he was orderly and methodical, keeping the colours of his palette (vermilion, white, Naples yellow, two yellow ochres, two red ochres, raw Sienna, light red, burnt Sienna, crimson lake, Prussian blue, peach black, ivory black, Cassel earth, bitumen) carefully separate `and the studio clean and tidy. Complete silence was an absolute prerequisite and he told one friend that even the scuffling of a mouse could stop him working. He used small brushes and particularly thick, sticky oils, which dried overnight and left little opportunity for second thoughts. The models were posed singly, each figure painted to the finish over a vast outline sketch. This jigsaw procedure, focused exclusively on specific elements of the composition at the expense of its totality, was considered strange by observers and the consequent sense of groups of characters deliberately and theatrically posed for maximum effect is thought by some critics to mar the genius of the painting.
`His manner of working was quite new to me,’ recalled his friend Montfort over thirty years later.
It astonished me as much as his intense industry. He painted directly on the white canvas, without rough sketch or any preparation of any sort, except for the firmly traced contours, and yet the solidity of the work was none the worse for it. I was struck by the keen attention with which he examined the model before touching brush to canvas. He seemed to proceed slowly, when in reality he executed very rapidly, placing one touch after the other in its place, rarely having to go over his work more than once. There was very little perceptible movement of his body or arms. His expression was perfectly calm …
The image which he finally selected eschews the melodramatic excess of the cannibalism, the overcrowded violence of the mutiny or the relief of the rescue. Instead, G”ricault chose something less emotionally clear-cut – the point of unbearably intense excitement at which the Argus was first sighted on the far horizon. Barely visible, a mere dot of hope (in G”ricault’s early sketches, the brig looms much larger and clearer) it provokes a massive surge of heroic last-ditch optimism to the northeast of the canvas, counterpointed by the death-marked despair slumped over its south-west. To emphasize the bleakness of the false dawn, G”ricault darkened the weather from the blazing blue sunshine of the actual morning to a louring storm and added two historically incorrect corpses. A total of twenty figures occupy G”ricault’s raft, five more than reality’s; three of them – Savigny, Corr”ard and the ship’s carpenter – are depicted from life. The picture which results is an image of tragedy, not triumph. It seems to tear itself in half.
Throughout this period of self-incarceration G”ricault’s closest companion was a handsome eighteen-year-old student who worked as his assistant. We know almost nothing of Louis-Alexis Jamar, who for some reason proved unforthcoming when interviewed, many years later, for Cl’ment’s biography. Apprentice and master slept in the same small room off the studio, and their relationship was at the very least stormy and emotional. One memoir later recorded how G”ricault took a rare evening off with some friends, returning home at 2 a.m. drunk `and in such a state of exaltation that he started to embrace M. Jamar – who had waited up for him – and did not want to let him go’ They quarrelled too. One afternoon, Jamar stormed out after G”ricault had casually criticised him in front of some visitors. Having sulked at his parents’ house for two days, he was awoken at 6 a.m. by a tap on the door of his attic bedroom. It was G”ricault, who had slipped past the concierge and Jamar’s sleeping parents to apologise and ask him to return. `Mon petit Jamar, you misinterpreted a remark which I made in your best interests,’ he pleaded. So Jamar went back with him.
G”ricault often sketched his apprentice, his thick black hair, pouting mouth and long nose lending themselves easily to affectionate caricature. He also painted his portrait twice and posed him nude for the dead youth, sliding out of the grip of the Job-like elder in the foreground of The Raft of the `Medusa’, as well as for two less prominent figures in the painting. No human being in G”ricault’s oeuvre is afforded the tenderness of expression and delicacy of touch that Jamar is. Why? Of what did their relationship consist? There is no answer. Other painters could dwell on the features of their wives or lovers: G”ricault was forbidden Alexandrine, and for a year or so only Jamar was physically close to him – who else was there to hug when he was drunk?
Yet it could have been otherwise, had he wished it so, and what is striking is how little women interest him as an artist, how rarely and peripherally they feature in his work and how entirely absent they are as conventional erotic figures: `Je commence une femme et “a devient un lion’ (`I begin [to draw] a woman and it becomes a lion’), he is reported to have explained lamely. He did sketch a few frank images of sexual congress, but the female nude – rounded, fleshy, and passive – which had been one of the great obsessions of painting in the 300 years since the Renaissance, did not engage him; the male nude – tense, sinewy and active – clearly did.
After eighteen months of gestation, The Raft of the `Medusa’ was finished in July 1819 and hung alongside 1300 other canvases in the Louvre’s competitive annual exhibition of new French art known as the `Salon’. Because the Medusa remained such a politically sensitive matter, G”ricault inexplicitly entitled the painting Sc”ne de Naufrage, although its precise subject would have been as obvious to anyone as a picture called Car Crash depicting a smashed-up Mercedes in a tunnel would be to us today. Its dimensions alone ensured that it made an impact, but the image was too original, too powerful and disconcerting to win the sort of instant popular acclaim that G”ricault seems to have been hoping for. In the words of Lorenz Eitner, `surrounded by altar-pieces and pallid histories, this scene of a modern martyrdom violated all the rules … it affronted authority, spurned official piety and popular taste and offered nothing to national pride.’ It was neither Christian nor classical, neither edifying nor elegant. It seems that the majority of visitors to the Salon were impressed but also repelled, and the critics didn’t quite know what to make of it either. There was confusion as to whether the scene was meant to serve as a piece of literal historical realism or a political allegory. What was its purpose, what was its message? Some found it too dark, too monochrome; some felt its violence to be distasteful. This ambitious unknown was talented, but he should try harder to conform to the good form of the modern masters. `Courage, Monsieur G”ricault! Try to moderate an enthusiasm that might carry you too far. Being a colourist by instinct, try to become one In practice; being still an imperfect draughtsman, study the art of David …’ exhorted one reviewer.
At the close of the exhibition the judging panel awarded Sc”ne de Naufrage a gold medal, but denied it the supreme honour of purchase for the national collection for the Louvre. Instead, G”ricault was offered another consolation prize, in the form of an official commission to paint something on the theme of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It wasn’t a subject calculated to inspire him, but he accepted the compliment and, with characteristically cavalier generosity, secretly passed the job and the fee to the struggling young Eug”ne Delacroix, who knocked off something that G”ricault then signed. Who would care? Or know the difference? Any jobbing artist might have been pleased by these attentions, but the reception of The Raft of the `Medusa’ had fallen short of G”ricault’s dreams and he was becoming thoroughly disenchanted with the French art world. His depressed cynicism plummeted towards exhausted nervous collapse.
Listless, morose and occasionally paranoid, tormented by who knows what emotional hell over his forbidden mistress and their baby, he lost his sense of direction. In early 1820 he toyed with the idea of embarking on another grand history painting – sketches survive of two sensational contemporary events, the Greek War of Independence and the murder of the Duc de Berry – but to replicate the Herculean effort of concentration that The Raft of the `Medusa’ had required would have been beyond his fragile mental equilibrium. A series of strange portraits of blankly staring, podgy-cheeked children also dates from this period: perhaps the explanation for their charmlessness relates to G”ricault’s blocked feelings about his own little son, whom he may never have seen.
Copyright ” 2000 by Rupert Christiansen. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.