Even though it’s been more than a decade, I remember it as though it were yesterday. Like so many art history students, I made my first pilgrimage to the Louvre—tantamount to mecca for an art nerd like me—to feast my eyes and nourish my soul.
Wall-to-wall tourists, numbering close to 15,000 on an average day, are an unavoidable aspect of the experience, but it seemed as though 14,999 of them were in full paparazzi mode in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa, while I found myself virtually alone with Théodore Géricault’s great masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa (1819).
The painting had struck a chord with me the first time it flashed on the slide projector in World Art History, and the physical experience of the work in all its glory—the overwhelming size, the pyramidal composition, the diagonal rhythm, the murky palette, the mastery of tenebrism—nearly brought me to tears.
It was then that I was approached by another visitor, who implored me to explain why the painting had such a profound impact on me. I paused and took a deep breath before regaling him with the dramatic episode being depicted—a shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1816 that left 140 passengers floating on a raft for nearly two weeks before a surviving group of 15 were rescued—and quickly followed up with the art historical rhetoric of how the painting symbolized a monumental departure from Neoclassicism, the prevailing style heralded by the Academy at the time. He looked at me in both shock and wonder, quietly thanked me, and sat down on a nearby bench to take in the masterpiece firsthand.
I’ve returned to the scene many times since that first visit, and The Raft still takes my breath away, but I often get my Géricault “fix,” minus the 12-hour flight, right here at the Getty.
Only a few buildings away from my office, in the West Pavilion, hangs one of his portrait studies for the epic history painting. Géricault’s mastery of tension and turmoil through Caravaggesque lighting and short, swift brushstrokes are fully present, despite the smaller scale. The man, a live model who worked in Paris for Géricault as well as other artists, is carefully rendered with great specificity—both in physical appearance and emotional torment —and his presence haunts me long after I’ve returned to my desk, compelling me to return for another Géricault “fix.”
It’s a bit morbid to ruminate on great shipwrecks, cannibalism, and insanity on the anniversary of Géricault’s birth, but then again, perhaps it’s the most fitting tribute, given the artist’s penchant for the macabre. Happy birthday, Théodore.