Ary Scheffer

Self portrait by Ary Scheffer (1795)
Self portrait by Ary Scheffer (1795)

I have often mentioned in previous blogs that the subject for a blog frequently comes from something I have stumbled upon whilst researching another blog.  Today’s blog is all about the Dutch painter Ary Scheffer who had a connection with the artist I talked about in the last two blogs, Théodore Géricault, but more of that connection later as I first want to look at the life of the Dutchman who was a leading Romantic painter.

Ary Scheffer came from an artistic background.  His father was Johann- Bernhard Scheffer a portraitist who originally hailed from Hamburg but from his early teenage years lived in the Netherlands.  He had married Cornellia Lamme, another artist who concentrated on miniature portraits.  Ary Scheffer’s maternal grandfather was Arie Lamme the Dutch landscape painter.  The couple, who lived in Dordrecht,  had three sons, Ary, the eldest, was born in February 1795, his brother Karel Arnold Scheffer who was born in 1796, went on to become a journalist and writer and their youngest, Hendrik, who also became an artist, was born in September 1798.

The Three Brothers Scheffer in a Landscape by Ary Scheffer (1824)
The Three Brothers Scheffer in a Landscape by Ary Scheffer (1824)

Ary Scheffer was given his first artistic tuition by his parents but when he was eleven years of age his parents enrolled him at the Stadstekenacademie in Amsterdam on a three year art course.   During that time he put forward one of his paintings, Hanibal Searing to Avenge the Death of his Brother Hasdrubal, in the first Exhibition of Living Masters in Amsterdam in 1808.

The painting is now in the Dordrecht Museum along with a number of his other works which are hung in the Ary Scheffer Room.  That same year, his father became the court painter of Louis Bonaparte, who ruled over the Kingdom of Holland, a position bestowed on him by his brother, Napoleon Bonaparte.  Ary’s father only held the position for a year as in 1809 he died.  Following the death of her husband, Cornelia Scheffer moved to Paris with her three sons where Ary and his brother Hendrik became pupils at the studio of the French painter, Pierre Guérin.   Ary and Hendrik were in good company at the studio as two of their fellow pupils would become the figureheads of the French Romantic movement in art, Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault.

Ary Scheffer later attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and from 1812 for the next thirty five years exhibited works at the annual Salons.  Along with Delacroix and Géricault, Ary Scheffer is recognised as one of the great painters of the Romantic school.  Following the end of the Revolution and the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte the French bourgeoisie once again came to prominence and along with the State were the main patrons of the Arts.   Scheffer’s work was very popular and at the end of each Salon his paintings would be snapped up by eager buyers.

The Soldier's Widow by Ary Scheffer
The Soldier’s Widow by Ary Scheffer

In the 1822 Salon he exhibited his very sentimental painting Soldier’s Widow which was very popular and although the whereabouts of the painting is unknown there are a number of monochrome prints of the work.

General Lafayette by Ari Scheffer (1823)
General Lafayette by Ari Scheffer (1823)

Ary Scheffer was also an excellent portraitist and in 1823 he completed probably one of the best portraits. It was of General Lafayette, the French aristocrat and military officer.  It was a full-length standing portrait that was the most popular image of Lafayette as an older man, who had once been a general in the American Revolution War (1775-83) against the British and a close friend of George Washington.  Lafayette was a popular subject for prints in the first half of the 19th century.  He was a hero to both the French and the Americans; he was the first foreign dignitary to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and in 1824, on the occasion of Lafayette’s celebrated tour of the United States, Ary Scheffer presented his painting to the U.S. House of Representatives. It has hung to the left of the Speaker’s rostrum since the opening of the current House Chamber in 1858.  Lafayette would later figure in the French Revolution in 1789 and in the July Revolution of 1830 which led to Louis-Philippe becoming ruler of the French nation.  This painting, entitled Gilbert de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, is now part of the collection of the US House of Representatives in Washington.

When Louis-Philippe came to power in 1830 it marked the zenith of Scheffer’s artistic career.  Scheffer, before the July revolution, had been giving drawing lessons to Louis-Philippe’s children and a great friendship between artist and his pupils blossomed.  Once Louis-Philippe came to power after the 1830 Revolution, Scheffer attained an influential position within the court. Louis-Philippe became the patron of the artist and the Orleans family bought many of Scheffer’s paintings. Scheffer received numerous lucrative commissions for the Musée Historique at Versailles, which Louis-Philippe founded in 1837 and which was situated in the wings of the Palace of Versailles.   The gallery which is one hundred and twenty metres long houses and also includes extensive tables that illustrate the major military events of the history of France.

Princess Marie d'Orléans by Ary Scheffer (1831)
Princess Marie d’Orléans by Ary Scheffer (1831)

Ary Scheffer also completed a number of Royal portraits including one in 1831 of Princess Marie of Orléans the third child and second daughter of Louis-Philippe and his wife Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies.  She later became the wife of Duke Alexander of Württenberg.  She was the most talented artist of all the Royal children and was constantly encouraged to pursue her love of art and sculpture by Ari Scheffer.  Sadly she died of tuberculosis when she was just twenty-five years old.

Marie Amélie of Naples, Queen of the French by Ary Scheffer (1857)
Marie Amélie of Naples, Queen of the French by Ary Scheffer (1857)

Another member of the he French Royal Family who featured in one of Scheffer’s portraits was Marie-Amalia, the niece of Marie-Antoinette and the wife of Louis-Philippe.  Louis-Philippe had reigned as the French monarch from 1830 when he came to power following the July Revolution and ruled for eighteen years but was deposed in the February 1848 Revolution which resulted in he and his wife, Marie-Amalia living a life in exile in England.


The couple lived at Claremont, a stately home owned by Leopold of the Belgians, but lent out to Queen Victoria.  In 1850 Louis-Philippe died but his widow remained at Claremont for the rest of her life.   Ary Scheffer visited Claremont in 1857 at which time he completed the portrait of the ex-Queen.   In it we see a frail seventy-five year old lady in mourning.

Death of Géricault by Ary Scheffer (1824)
Death of Géricault by Ary Scheffer (1824)

What persuaded me to feature Ary Scheffer was when I was looking at the death of Théodore Géricault at the young age of thirty-two; I came across a painting entitled The Death of Géricault by today’s featured artist, Ary Scheffer.  It is beautiful work of art which highlights the French Romanticism style, which was so popular at the time.  Look at the man sitting on the chair who was presumably one of Géricault’s close friends.   Look at the way Scheffer has depicted him.  He grasps Géricault’s limp wrist with his right hand whilst he buries his head on his left hand which lies across the back of the chair which he is sitting on.  It is almost a scene from an old silent Hollywood movie or part of an amateur dramatics production.  The physician holds Géricault’s left hand which lies almost lifeless over his heart.  Look at Géricault’s face.  It is sunken.  It is almost skull-like.   In my last blog I featured Géricault’s last self-portrait which was a very disturbing depiction and somebody commented that it could not have been that bad but what we see in Scheffer’s painting is very close to that self-portrait.  This was the end for the great artist.

Théodore Géricault and Monomania

Self Portrait by Théodore Géricault
Self Portrait by Théodore Géricault

In my last blog I looked at some works by Théodore Géricault.  I examined his paintings which featured horses and the military and his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa which I had examined in detail in my blog of June 10th 2011.  I finally looked at a highly erotic work which he painted for his own delectation around about the same time of the Medusa work.  In this blog I want to look at what I consider as his finest works, a series of portraits of men and women who had serious mental issues.

Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)
Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)

Having completed The Raft of the Medusa around 1819 he exhibited it at that year’s Salon under the title Scène de Naufrage (Scene of Shipwreck).  It was hailed as the star piece of that year’s Salon and was well received by the French public including Louis XVIII himself, who had sponsored the exhibition.  Such was the fame of this work that Géricault was invited to London in June 1820 to exhibit the painting at William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.  It drew in crowds from all over the country and by the time the exhibition ended at the end of 1820, more than forty thousand people had come to view the masterpiece and as Géricault had negotiated a fee based on the number of people who paid to see his work it is thought that he walked away with twenty thousand francs and so it was just as well the French government would not countenance the purchase of the work when the 1819 Salon closed!

A year later, at the end of 1821, Géricault left London and returned to Paris.  It was at this time that he embarked on a series of ten portraits of people who were suffering from what is termed monomaniaMonomania is an exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing.  It is a type of partial insanity.  The word was first used by the French psychiatrist Jean Étienne Esquirol around 1810 and was a notion typified by the presence of an expansive fixed idea in which the person’s mind was diseased and deranged in some aspects but otherwise normal in others. So why would Géricault focus on this type of person and who commissioned the ten small works?

The man who commissioned the paintings is known to be Étienne-Jean Georget.  Georget was an intern at Salpêtrière, the women’s asylum in Paris, and later the medical supervisor at a private asylum in Ivry.  As to how the two men met is still up for debate amongst art historians.  One theory is that Géricault was treated by the psychiatrist.  He had been suffering from depression accompanied by paranoid delusions which culminated in a nervous breakdown around 1819.  Another possibility was that the two met during one of Géricault’s visits to the hospital morgue where he would go to acquire dissected limbs which he often used in his preliminary studies for major works, such as his Raft of the Medusa painting.  It could have been that Georget had commissioned the work as he believed such an artistic task would help Géricault recover from his own mental dark period.  When Géricault completed the work he gave them to the psychiatrist as a way of expressing his thanks.  Some art historians however believe that it was a simple commission, the result of which would help Georget in his studies into monomania.  However it should not be forgotten that Géricault had an intense interest in the causes and results of mental instability for his grandfather and one of his uncles had died insane. At the time Géricault was formulating his painting The Raft of the Medusa, which featured a group of men adrift on a raft after the sinking of their vessel Medusa, he knew that the key to success would be an authentic depiction of the terrified and dying seamen.   Géricault portrayed the men on the raft as dead or dying, desperately trying to signal for help.  To achieve a sense of realism he had contacted a variety of medical specialists. His principal concern had been to gain access to human bodies in various states of putrefaction, to ensure the genuineness of the finished painting and it could have been that he also talked to the likes of Georget about the psychological trauma suffered by the victims of the Medusa shipwreck.  It is known that he interviewed the surgeon, Henry Savigny, who had been serving on the vessel when the shipwreck occurred and the doctor, at the time, had been putting down in print his experiences and the way it mentally affected the stricken crew members.

Whatever the circumstances were we know the five paintings I am going to feature initially belonged to Georget.  He, like Géricault died when he was in his early thirties.   I mention five works and yet one of Géricault’s early biographers, Charles Clément, talked of there being ten portraits.  However, only five remain.  So did the missing five feature five other mental patients?  What is currently believed is that Georget had asked Géricault to paint a further five works featuring the same five people at a later time so as to highlight the change in their appearance.  For Georget this was the study of physiognomy, an art of judging character from the face and phrenology, which would link the external form of the cranium as indication of mental faculties.  Simply put it was the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance.  We have no names as to the sitters, just the monomania that is afflicting each of them.  In his book On Madness, published in 1820, Georget is most definite that madness can be seen in the face of the afflicted.  He wrote:

“…In general the idiot’s face is stupid, without meaning; the face of the manic patient is as agitated as his spirit, often distorted and cramped; the moron’s facial characteristics are dejected and without expression; the facial characteristics of the melancholic are pinched, marked by pain or extreme agitation; the monomaniacal king has a proud, inflated expression; the religious fanatic is mild, he exhorts by casting his eyes at the heavens or fixing them on the earth; the anxious patient pleads, glancing sideways, etc…”

Certainly harsh and in some ways unfeeling words from the psychiatrist and are in complete contrast to the sympathetic way Géricault depicted the sitters.

The five surviving portraits are entitled Portrait of a  Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command;    A Kleptomaniac;  Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy;     A Woman Addicted to Gambling and A Child Snatcher.  It seems likely that the featured women were inmates of the women’s hospital Salpêtrière, while the men were chosen from the many male inmates of the male asylums of Charenton and Bicȇtre.

Portrait of a Woman suffering from obsessive envy by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Woman suffering from obsessive envy by Théodore Géricault (1822)

The first of the five I am featuring Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy, which is housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyons.  She avopids our gaze.  Her eyes are red-rimmed.  She has suffered and is probably still suffering.  Her case notes stated that she suffered from “envy obsessions” and maybe the slightest hint of a green tint to her face was the artist’s way to signify her obsession with envy.

Portrait of a Man suffering from Delusions of Military Command by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Man suffering from Delusions of Military Command by Théodore Géricault (1822)

Next we have a man who suffers from delusions of grandeur and the portrait is entitled A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command which is in the Museum Oskar Reinhart in Winterthur in Switzerland.  The man in this particular portrait believed he was Napoleon and maybe Géricault believed that it was not just his sitter who had delusions of grandeur but it was targeted at the man himself, Napoleon, who may also suffered a similar delusional belief in himself as the head of the French Empire.  One needs to remember my previous blog when I featured some of Géricault’s military paintings.  Maybe now, like many French people after the defeat of Napoleon, he had misgivings about the glory of battle.  It is a very sympathetic portrayal of the old man and there is an air of sadness about his demeanour.  He looks like a defeated man and could well be an allegory for a defeated nation.

Portrait of a Kleptomaniac by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Kleptomaniac by Théodore Géricault (1822)

My third offering is the painting entitled Portrait of a Kleptomaniac which is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.  It is a strange depiction.  Just by looking at him we know there is something wrong in his life both physically and mentally.  He is dishevelled.  His sallow skin tone alerts us to him being ill.  His beard is unkempt and his hair is uncombed and messy.  Look at his face.  Look at the redness of his left cheek which looks swollen as if he has been involved in a fight.  He stares out at us, or maybe past us, but we have no idea what he is thinking. It is an empty gaze.  Géricault probably had no idea what his sitter was thinking but he made sure he captured every small detail about the man and maybe he wants us to decide on what has brought this man to the asylum.

Portrait of a Woman suffering from an  Obsessive Gambling disorder  by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Woman suffering from an Obsessive Gambling Disorder by Théodore Géricault (1822)

The fourth painting is entitled A Woman suffering from and Obsessive Gambling Disorder and can be found at the Louvre in Paris.  The old woman in the painting avoids stares out at us but it is a blank stare.  One has no idea what she is thinking.  She is lost in her own world, a world she is resigned to but does not enjoy.   Her eyes are red-rimmed probably brought on by the amount of mental and physical pain she has had to endure.  Her mouth is tense.  You can see in her facial expression that she is disturbed by something but with what?

Portrait of a Child Snatcher by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Child Snatcher by Théodore Géricault (1822)

The final portrait by Géricault is entitled A Child Snatcher.  Before us we have a man who looks distinctly unhappy with his lot in life.   He is dressed in old brown clothes and has a dishevelled look about him.  His face is haggard.  His life has not been easy.  The dark background give us the distinct impression that this man lives in a world of isolation.  It is as if, as a resident of a mental institution, he has been cut adrift by society.  He avoids our gaze and looks to the side in a somewhat shifty manner.  Although we would compartmentalize this type of portrait as one of realism there is an element of romanticism in the way Géricault does not want us to judge the sitter.  Looking at the man we would not know his crime but the title of Child Snatcher tells us all we need to know about a man who in the present day would be probably be classed as a paedophile.

Last self portrait by Théodore Géicault (c. 1823 - 1824)
Last self portrait by Théodore Géicault (c. 1823 – 1824)

If you think that the five portraits were very disturbing and yet very real, I will leave you with one other shocking portrait.  It is the last self-portrait by Géricault, which he completed when close to death.  What a terrible sight it must have been as he looked in the mirror as he worked on his own portrait.  Remember this was a young man in his early thirties.

 The five existing portraits were discovered unframed and unstretched by Louis Viardot , the husband of the famous  French mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot .  Viardot was an artist himself, and a great admirer of Gericault, and so he recognised the style of the works as that of Géricault.  Géricault’s biographer Charles Clément researched the origin of the works and found that they had all belonged to a certain Dr Lacheze, to whom they had been bequeathed by another medical man, the psychiatrist Dr Etienne Georget.

Théodore Géricault's tomb at Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris
Théodore Géricault’s tomb at Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris

Théodore Géricault died in January 1824, aged 32 and is buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  This series of portraits featuring mentally disturbed people was completed by an artist who also suffered depression during his later life.  In 1810, he wrote to his best friend, Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy:

 “…Now I am disoriented and confused. I try in vain to find support; nothing seems solid, everything escapes me, deceives me. Our earthly hopes and desires are only vain fancies, our successes mere mirages that we try to grasp…”

Whereas Dr Georget was more clinical and some would say somewhat cold-hearted about his desire to have the portraits of these people we can see in the way Géricault depicted them with sympathy and even empathy.

Théodore Géricault – horses, military and the erotic

Théodore Géricault by Alexandre Colin (1816)
Théodore Géricault by Alexandre Colin (1816)

In the last few blogs I have talked about paintings which, at the time, shocked the establishment. In this blog I will be looking at a painting by one of the great French artists that, no doubt, would have shocked the nation of art lovers if it had ever been exhibited but in fact it only surfaced 170 years after its completion. The artist in question is Théodore Géricault, who is looked upon as one of the early leaders of the Romantic Movement and who went on to inspire another great artist of the Romantic Movement, Eugene Delacroix. The painting that probably would have astonished the art world, if it had been exhibited, was entitled Three Lovers and was completed around 1820 when Géricault was twenty-nine years of age. He must have been working on this painting at the same time that he was painting his great 1819 masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa (see My Daily Art Display of June 10th 2011).

Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)
Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)

Théodore Géricault was born in Rouen, France in September 1791. His family were of the upper middle class bracket. When Géricault was four years old the family moved from Rouen to Paris. He received the normal education as a child and teenager but showed little interest in his studies at the lycée. During his early life Géricault had two great passions in life – art and horses and loved to go horse riding a pastime which would literally be the death of him. When he was seventeen years of age his mother died and he received a sizeable inheritance.

In 1808, aged seventeen years of age, he enrolled at the studio of Carle Vernet, who was best known for his paintings of horses. Two years later, in 1810, he moved to the studio of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, a much admired classical painter where he received a much enhanced academic training in art. After just six months working with Guérin, Géricault left the studio to concentrate on copying the great works housed at the Louvre. He did this for three years.

Charging Chasseur by Théodore Géricault (1812)
Charging Chasseur by Théodore Géricault (1812)

In 1812 he entered a painting into the Salon. It was originally entitled Equestrian Portrait of M.D***, later to be changed to The Charging Chasseur. It was a depiction of a mounted Napoleonic cavalry officer who is ready to attack the enemy. The chasseur sits astride his grey stallion, sword in hand, raring to go into battle. The horse, with flying mane and foaming mouth, enforces the animal’s aggressive passion. This was a true war-horse. This was what was good about war – bravery of man and animal and ultimate victory. The painting met with critical acclaim. Everybody loves a winner !

Wounded Cuirassier leaving the Field of Battle  by Théodore Géricault (1814)
Wounded Cuirassier leaving the Field of Battle by Théodore Géricault (1814)

Two years later, in 1814, buoyed by this success, Géricault once again exhibited The Charging Chasseur along with a newly completed work at that year’s Salon, entitled The Wounded Cuirassier leaving the field of Battle but to his amazement and annoyance the art critics were critical and the public were dismissive of his effort. So, why the change of heart amongst the critics and the public? Géricault loved the subject of horses and horsemanship and during the Napoleonic era such subject matter proved irresistible to him and the French public. For Géricault, his love was to depict the powerful combination of a rider dressed in his magnificent uniform and the sheer animal power of his horse. However, this was not the normal depiction seen in academic battle paintings where the artist focused on a mass of soldiers led into battle by a famous general. These were paintings depicting victorious battles. However, in The Wounded Cuirassier leaving the field of Battle we see a depiction of a single anonymous wounded soldier with his battle-weary mount limping from the battlefield. This was definitely not what the establishment and the art critics wanted to see. Maybe Géricault’s biographer, the nineteenth century art historian, Charles Clément, summed it up perfectly when he wrote of the difference between the two works:

“…In 1812 success was still in the air, whilst in 1814 everyone knew they were facing defeat…….The echoes of the cries of distress from our suffering armies on the plains of Russia resounded through the lands. Hearts were full of fear and terror. It is this universal feeling which Géricault expressed in his painting and explored in the Wounded Cuirassier…..He painted two pictures, the first about glory and the other about faded glory…”

In 1816 with a desire to win a three-year paid scholarship in Rome he competed for the Prix de Rome. However his work just got him to the semi final stage before his offering was eliminated. Still with a desire to go to Italy he decided to fund himself. He stayed in Italy visiting Florence, Rome and Naples before returning to Paris a year later. It was during this period in Paris (1818-19) that he set about painting his famous work The Raft of the Medusa. This was an enormous work of art which measured approximately 4.9m x 7.2m (16ft x 23ft). It was also during this time that he decided to paint, for himself, a small highly erotic work entitled Three Lovers.

Three Lovers by Théodore Géricault (1817-20)
Three Lovers by Théodore Géricault (1817-20)

Three Lovers which is now housed in the Paul Getty Museum in Santa Monica measured just 22.5cms x 29.8cms (9 inches x 12 inches). The picture is dominated by a large bed that is framed by furniture and a large curtain which is partly drawn to the side. In some ways it is as if we were theatre-goers and we are looking at a stage with the theatre curtain pulled to one side for us to enjoy the performance, and what a performance!


At one end of the bed we see a dark haired woman lying somewhat lethargically against some blue pillows. She is naked from the waist up and her arms are spread wide exposing her rounded breasts. She looks closely at a pair of lovers who are making love. By her expression we feel that she is sated, probably having already had her turn of lovemaking with the man who is now pleasuring himself with the blonde woman at the opposite end of the bed. She is now happy to watch as the pair make love. She has now taken on the role as voyeur. The blonde and the man are locked in an intimate embrace. She half kneels on the bed between his thighs. Although he is almost hidden from view his naked legs would suggest he is lying semi-naked beneath his lover. The blonde woman is not naked but her white dress is pulled up to her waist by the man’s encircling arm which exposes her naked thigh and buttock. The way in which she has positioned herself on top of the man and the way she has her arms tightly wrapped around his neck exhibits her obvious arousal.

The stocking
The stocking

Géricault has depicted the blonde woman’s stocking down at her ankle which adds to the erotic nature of the painting.

It is a highly erotic work of art and because of the nature of the depiction Géricault would almost certainly have painted it for himself. He would never have intended it to be exhibited as he would have known full well that it would have been condemned by both critics and public for its dubious morality in a society which strongly adhered to religious and moral values and which condemned sexual excesses and misbehaviour. Of course having said all that it could well be that such erotic encounters did take place between prostitutes and their customers despite people pretending such excesses did not occur. Maybe Géricault was reminding himself of what did happen in dimly lit rooms where passions prevailed over civic respectability.

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)

My Daily Art Display today features one of the most moving paintings I have come across and what makes it even more remarkable is that it is based on a true story.  The massive oil on canvas painting is entitled The Raft of Medusa and was painted by the French Romantic painter, Théodore Géricault in 1819.  Before I look at the painting let me go through the actual events which this painting is based upon.

The story begins on June 17, 1816 with the new Bourbon government of France dispatching the frigates Medusa, Loire and Echo and the brig Argus to officially receive the British handover of the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal to France.  The British who having helped to re-establish the French monarchy, wanted to demonstrate their support for Louis XVIII, and decided to hand over to him this strategic trading port on the West African coast.  The French naval frigate, Medusa was to carry 365 crew and passengers, including the Senegal’s governor-designate, Colonel Julien-Désire Schmaltz, from Port de Rochefort on the island of Aix on France’s west coast, to Senegal via Tenerife.

The captain of the Medusa was Vicomte Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, who at the age of 53 had spent most of his career behind a desk at customs offices and had never been in command of a ship, in fact had hardly sailed on a ship for twenty years.  However,  the old adage “it’s who you know and not what you know” was applicable in his being put in command of the fleet as he had many Royalist connections.  The governor-designate Schmaltz wanted to reach St Louis as soon as possible and persuaded the captain to set a course close to the shore line in order to save time.  Things went badly almost from the start of the voyage when a young cabin boy was lost over the side.  Captain Chaumereys also had problems with both his passengers and crew alike, spending long periods arguing with them

The Medusa was a fast vessel and in fact much faster than the other vessels in the group and soon pulled ahead of them which was to be a contributing factor in the forthcoming disaster and terrible loss of life.  On July 2nd, for some reason, whether due to poor navigation skills or lack of attention the Medusa, was many miles off course and  ran aground on the Arguin Banks, which lie off the west coast of Mauritania, despite perfect weather conditions and calm seas.  The grounding ripped a hole in the hull of the Medusa and after surveying the damage it was deemed un-repairable and terminal.  Couple this factor along with deteriorating weather conditions and the crew had no choice but to abandon the vessel.  The Medusa had some lifeboats but they would hold only 150 people and so it was decided to construct a raft to house the rest

The crew then set to work making a raft from parts of the Medusa’s decking and masts.  When completed the raft measured 65 feet by 23 feet and was towed behind two of the ship’s lifeboats.  In all, one hundred and fifty people, including one woman, boarded the raft.  However with such weight the raft became almost submerged and it was decided to jettison some of the food.  After doing this the deck of the raft settled in the water with what they believed to be a suitable clearance above the sea surface.  The lifeboats towing their raft set off from the crippled Medusa but the weight of the raft was becoming problematic.  The only propulsion of this raft was from the rowing power of the men in the lifeboats which was towing it,as the raft had no oars, no sails and no navigational aids.

For some unknown reason, whether it be that the people on the raft decided that their lives would be safer if they disengaged from the lifeboats or whether those in the lifeboat believed that the raft was jeopardising their safety, the towing line was severed and the raft was set free, some four miles off the coast of Mauretania.  By the second day, three of the passengers had committed suicide and that following night the store of rum aboard the raft was broached and in a drunken insurrection by the soldiers against their officers, mayhem ensued.  By daylight the next day the number of people alive on the raft had more than halved to sixty.  Food had run out and the survivors resorted to eating the corpses.

On July 1th 1816, after 13 days adrift, the raft by pure chance was rescued by the Argus, as no specific search effort was made by the French for the raft.   At this time only 15 men were still alive; the others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades,  Some had died of starvation, and some had thrown themselves into the sea in despair.

The whole episode was a disaster, not only to those who sailed on the Medusa but for the French government and when the ship’s surgeon Savigny submitted a report on the incident, it was leaked to an anti-government newspaper, the Journal des débats,  which caused outrage.  The French government had tried hard to suppress the details.  The French nation was horrified.  The event became an international scandal, partly because of the human disaster and partly because the disaster was generally attributed to the incompetence of the French captain, whom people believed was acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy.  However in reality, King Louis XVIII had no say in the captain’s appointment, since, then as now, monarchs were not directly involved in appointments made to vessels like a naval frigate.   Captain de Chamereys was found to blame for the incident and was court-martialed.

This painting by Géricault was his first major work of art and is now housed in the Louvre in Paris.    What strikes you first when you stand in front of this painting is its enormous size, measuring 16 feet by 24 feet.  We, the viewers, are dwarfed by its enormity, which gives the painting more power.  Strangely enough nobody commissioned the work but the artist believed that the incident he was portraying would generate great interest from the public and in so doing he believed his career would take off.   Géricault spent much time in preparing for this painting doing numerous sketches.  He interviewed the ship’s doctor, Henri Savigny and the ship’s geographer, Alexander Corréard  and he even constructed a detailed scale model of the raft.  He would have models pose on his constructed raft .  His friend, the artist Delacroix, modelled for the figure in the foreground, with face turned downward and one arm outstretched.  His young assistant Louis-Alexis Jamar modelled nude for the dead man in the foreground, who is about to slip into the sea.  In his desire to depict accurately the bodies of the survivors and the dead he made many visits to morgues and hospitals noting details with regards the texture and colouring of flesh on live bodies and corpses.  Géricault had been correct in his assessment that the painting would prove popular if somewhat controversial.  It appeared in the 1819 Paris Salon and for the artist it launched his career and, although it was partly a history painting, it was looked upon as the beginning of the Romantic Movement in French painting.

The painting portrays the moment in time when the survivors on board the raft spot the approaching ship, Argus, which can just be seen on the whitened horizon.  It is at this very point in time that the survivors realise that they are about to be rescued.  An African crewman, said to be Jean Charles, can be seen standing on a cask waiving his shirt to attract the crew of the Argus.  This portrayal of a negro at the pinnacle of the painting was probably down to Géricault’s abolitionist’s sympathies.  The majority of the figures depicted in this enormous painting are life-size and the bodies of the men in the foreground are almost twice life-size.  Their closeness to the edge of the canvas  makes us almost believe we are just a step away from the raft itself.  The raft has suffered from the battering it endured in the rough seas and is barely afloat.  The painting is dark and sombre which Géricault chose to suggest the torment and agony of the survivors.

In some ways it is an idealised painting as in actuality, there are more people shown on the raft than were found by the Argus and at the time of the rescue of the castaways, the sea was recorded as being calm and the weather settled.  However to add feeling to the painting he has allowed the seas to be whipped up high in a frenzy of surf under blackened storm clouds.  One must also query the fact that some of the men seem so “muscled” and somewhat healthy despite having starved for such a length of time and barely kept alive.  It is a combination of history painting, recording the story of the men’s plight and a painting of the Romanticism genre.

There is a moody darkness about the painting.  There is a strong diagonal surge from the bottom left of the painting to the top right.  Our eyes move along the diagonal from viewing the despondent man with his head in hand in the bottom left to the man arm waving his shirt in the upper right.  As we stare in disbelief at the scene in front of us, we sympathise with the plight of these men.

Géricault must have been fully aware when he submitted the work to the Paris Salon that it would prove controversial as the demise of the Medusa and terrible loss of life was blamed on the Bourbon government and so whether the painting was acclaimed or condemned depended a a great deal on whether the viewer was pro or anti Bourbon.

The Madwoman sometimes known as Hyena of Salpêtrière by Théodore Géricault

The Madwoman sometimes known as Hyena of Salpétriè Géricault (1823)

My Daily Art Display today is a painting by the French artist and pioneer of the Romantic Movement Théodore Géricault.  Many will be familiar with his two masterpieces, namely, Officer of the Hussars and The Raft of Medusa but today I am going to take a look at a rather disturbing portrait he completed in 1823 entitled The Madwoman or sometimes known as Hyena of Salpétrière.

But first, a little about the artist.   Théodore Géricault was born in 1791 in Rouen in the north west of France.  He began his art tuition under the tutelage of Carle Venet an expert painter of horses and the “sport of kings”.  He also spent time with the classical painter Piere-Narcisse Guérin who believed the young Géricault had great talent but lacked calmness and composure which was needed to become a first-rate painter.

He went on to study at The Louvre where he copied the paintings of the Masters, such as Rubens, Titian and Rembrandt.  He did this for almost six years and developed a love for their style of painting which he believed to be of much more importance in comparison to the new art genre Neoclassicism, which had begun to come to the fore at the end of the eighteenth century.  In 1816 he went to Italy and visited Florence, Rome and Naples and this trip was the start of his love affair with the art of Michelangelo.  Géricault’s first great success as an artist came in 1821 when he was thirty years of age and he exhibited The Charging Hussar at the Paris Salon. 

A Madwoman and Compulsive Gambler by Géricault

It was in 1821 and just three years before his death at the young age of thirty-three that he embarked on a series of ten portraits of the insane who were all patients of his friend Doctor Etienne-Jean Georget, the French psychiatrist who pioneered in psychiatric medicine and worked at the infamous Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.  They series of portraits were all of maniacs who had an obsession.  One was a person who stole children, one was a person who obsessed with gambling, one was a man who was obsessed with robbery, a kleptomaniac,  and the poor woman in our featured painting was obsessed with envy.  The name of the establishment derived from the fact that it had originally been a gunpowder factory and then later was converted to a dumping ground for the poor of Paris. It served as a prison for prostitutes, and a holding place for the mentally disabled, criminally insane and the poor.  Its other “claim to fame“was that it was infested by rats!

Portrait of a Kleptomaniac by Géricault

Of the ten portraits only five, including the one featured today, remain.  The Madwoman is housed at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon.  In this painting Géricault has with compassion tried to capture and understand the image of mental illness.  Géricault, like many of his contemporaries, examined the influence of mental states on the human face and believed, as others did, that a face more accurately revealed character, especially in madness and at the moment of death. 

Let us look closely at the old woman in the painting.  She avoids our gaze as she looks downwards with slightly bulging eyes.  Her eyes are red-rimmed probably brought on by the amount of mental and physical pain she has had to endure.  Her mouth is tense.  You can see the anger in her face but angry with what?   Her case notes stated that she suffered from “envy obsessions” and maybe the slightest hint of a green tint to her face was the artist’s way to signify her obsession with envy.  Her expression was likened to that of a hyena and hence the subtitle of the painting Hyena of Salpétrière.

Gericault’s career was short-lived.  His love of horse riding was to be his downfall as after many riding accidents, which had weakened him, coupled with chronic lung infections, the young artist died after much suffering in Paris at the tender age of thirty-three. 

Géricault's tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

If you ever visit Paris you should, like I have done on many occasions, make the journey to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, which houses the graves and tombs of many famous people including that of Géricault, his bronze figure reclines, brush in hand, on top of his tomb.