Theodore Géricault – the great romantic artist

Horse (Eastern), Theodore Gericault
Horse (Eastern), Theodore Gericault

Theodore Géricault – the great romantic artist, misunderstood by his contemporaries

Theodore Géricault is a 19th-century French artist who, due to the themes and style of his works, became one of the first representatives of romanticism in painting. The creations of Theodore Gericault were not immediately appreciated by viewers and critics. His works did not fit into the Empire style, popular in the Restoration era, with its monumental subjects glorifying those in power.

Theodore Gericault lived a short but bright creative life. The legacy of the master has become a model for subsequent generations of adherents of the romantic style. The artist was able to accurately convey the whole gamut of feelings of his characters, and other plots of his paintings were so emotional that they caused an ambiguous reaction from the audience.

Theodore Géricault The Blacksmith's Signboard (1814)
The Blacksmith’s Signboard (1814)


Theodore Gericault was born on September 26, 1791 in Rouen into a wealthy bourgeois family. When the boy was five years old, his parents moved to Paris, where they sent their son to a boarding school. Theodore’s first years of study were spent at the Imperial Lyceum. For the holidays, he went to relatives in Normandy, where he devoted a lot of time to drawing. Horses became the young artist’s favorite models – already in his early sketches he managed to convey the dynamics of movements and the character of thoroughbred animals.

Theodore’s father was against his son devoting himself to painting and saw the heir’s career in jurisprudence. But the young man showed perseverance, and in 1808 he left the Lyceum to become an apprentice to the most famous hippologist in France, Carle Vernet.

Theodore Géricault A Horse frightened by Lightning (1813-1814)
A Horse frightened by Lightning (1813-1814)

Artist career

Gericault did not need money. After the death of his mother, he had a solid inheritance at his disposal. The two years spent in Vernet’s workshop brought Theodore nothing but disappointment. The young French artist quickly surpassed his teacher, whose painting was too superficial. In 1810, Gericault chose as his mentor Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, a follower of Jacques-Louis David and an adherent of the classical school of painting.

During his studies, Gericault created about fifty studies of nudes and often visited the stables of Versailles, where he studied the anatomy of horses well. His student work is distinguished by a very different manner of writing. In paintings with images of people, the artist used a thick and rough brushstroke, emphasizing the contrasts of light and shadow. He painted horses with careful study of every detail and paid much attention to the accuracy of the transfer of the landscape surrounding the animals.

Theodore Géricault Head of a horseman (1812)
Head of a horseman (1812)

First success

The first and loudest success in his entire career came to Gericault at the age of 21. His painting “Officer of the Horse Rangers of the Imperial Guard”, exhibited at the Salon, was awarded a gold medal. The work was praised by Jacques-Louis David himself, who visited the exposition, being already at a very respectable age.

The next work, presented by the artist to the public in 1814, was a failure. The painting “Wounded Cuirassier on the Battlefield” showed the whole tragedy of the collapse of the Napoleonic campaign in Russia and caused public rejection. Critics passed the canvas in silence, or spoke of him disapprovingly.

Under the influence of failure, Géricault decided to leave painting, and his father helped him acquire a patent for an officer of the Royal Guard. Musketeer Theodore did not stay long. The very next year after the flight of Louis XVIII to Belgium, Gericault decided to abandon his military career and returned to Paris.

Theodore Géricault Horse leaving a Stable (1810)
Horse leaving a Stable (1810)
Personal life

During this period, an ardent and emotionally unbalanced artist chose the wife of his uncle, Theodore Caruel, as the object of his passion. The young woman reciprocated, and family members became aware of the love affair. The scandal that broke out forced Gericault to leave for Italy, where he devoted a lot of time to getting acquainted with the work of the great masters of the Renaissance.

In 1818, the master returned to his homeland, where the criminal romance flared up with renewed vigor. The lovers had a son, which infuriated Uncle Theodore. He exiled the unfaithful wife to the province, and gave the child to be raised in an orphanage.

Theodore Géricault Officer of the Horse Rangers of the Imperial Guard
Officer of the Horse Rangers of the Imperial Guard
last years of life

The consequence of a series of unpleasant events was a deep depression of the artist – he locked himself in his studio for almost a year, from where he tried not to get out unless absolutely necessary. At this time, he painted a picture of “The Raft of the Medusa”, which no one understood. But the picture caused a stir among the English public. At an exhibition in London, the picture was watched by about fifty thousand people.

Portrait of the Carpenter of The Medusa (1812)
Portrait of the Carpenter of The Medusa (1812)

In 1821, Géricault’s morale deteriorated. He was forced to see a psychiatrist and visit the hospital for the insane in the Salpêtrière. The visits resulted in a whole series of portraits of the mentally ill patients of the clinic.

Mental problems and progressive tuberculosis undermined the health of the master. In 1822, at the races, he received a severe spinal injury. The next few months were spent fighting the constant pain. All this time, the artist painted sketches and made plans for the future, but a second fall from a horse ruined him completely. Théodore Géricault died of sepsis on January 26, 1824, at the age of thirty-two.

Slaves stopping a horse, study for The Race
Slaves stopping a horse, study for The Race
Study for the Race of the Barbarian Horses (1817)
Study for the Race of the Barbarian Horses (1817)
The three skulls (1812-1814)
The three skulls (1812-1814)
Wounded cuirassier leaving the battlefield (1814)
Wounded cuirassier leaving the battlefield (1814)
Like this post? Please share to your friends: