Théodore Gericault

Study od a Shipwrecked

1791 Rouen - 1824 Paris
Oil on canvas
46,5 x 37,5 cm


Having trained first in the workshop of Carle Vernet, alongside Horace, then in that of Pierre Narcisse Guérin, Théodore Gericault continues his education by copying works of Rubens, Titian, Rembrandt and Velázquez, which adorn the walls of the Napoleon Museum. From then on, he develops a personal and immediate sensitivity made of "pigments lourds et de brouillards sensuels"1without worrying about public taste. After several failures in the attempt to win the Prix de Rome, Gericault leaves for Italy by his own means. Arriving in Rome in 1816, he finally gets to admire the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and retains the anatomical deformations of Michelangelo. The terribilità of the master of the Renaissance marks our painter deeply, who takes the roughness of those bodies and their torments and applies it to our castaway.

Refugee in extremis on a rocky promontory, this man with knobby musculature is struck with an intense, cold and artificial light, compared to that which illuminates the l’Académie d’homme of the British Museum (Fig.1).

He sketches the body like a sculptor would assemble the different parts of the anatomy. Like the Landscape at the Tomb of Petit Palais (Fig. 2) and The Cart of Rhode Island (Fig. 3), thick keys, fat and generous, give relief to the surface of the canvas (Fig. 4).

The association of the tortured body and the raw stone is not without evoking the Slaves of Michelangelo emerging from their marble block. The Satyr and Nymph (Rouen, Museum of Fine Arts), carved by the artist at  the same time he is painting our  study of shipwrecked, is imbued with the unfinished Michelangelo. The painter seems to have appropriated the method of the master who " libérait [ses statues] du marbre comme s’il les faisait émerger d’un bassin remplid’eau "2 to transpose it to painting. So Gericault extracts from the sculpture all the vital power of this man which is one with the rock. The Battle of Cascina, projected by Michelangelo for the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence, is another source of inspiration for our painter. It takes again the " contours anguleux "3 specific to the musculature of the master as advocated by Winckelmann, and reproduces the torsion of the body of the bather in the foreground to the left of the composition (Fig.5). 

With quick and open brushstrokes, he conveys all this and adapts it to our castaway (Fig. 6). The Michelangelesque anatomy, and especially the drawing of this athletic arm, is also included in the monumental version of the National Gallery (Fig. 7).

In the latter, the painter changes point of view, and reveals the right flank of our castaway represented in the same pose, but this time the foot is still immersed in the waves. Gericault paints this man many times to develop the musculature, with large shoulders and bumpy back always marked by the Michelangelesque canon. 

Our painting shows great similarities with the Academy of lying nude (Fig. 8): the body’s fuzzy outline is quickly brushed into monochrome, the ribs are sharp, the scapula is striking. We also find this brown and dense hair treated by an assembly of flat areas that reveal in places the underlying layer clearer. If his face turns away from the spectator, it is not difficult to guess the profile of this artist`s model with features and thin lips. Subtly, Gericault  captures all the sensuality of this naked man that the penumbra, more pronounced in our painting, exacerbates. 

The studies he has painted on his return from Italy show the freedom that allows the artist to paint in  the academically learned way, as Louis Batissier relates: " On posait le modèle devant lui, écrit-il, mais il ne pouvait s’astreindre à le copier  servilement. Son imagination l’encadrait tout de suite dans une scène dramatique et il le dessinait, tel que lui off rait son imagination".4 So, by placing the model in a natural setting, he reinterprets the strictly academic exercise of studying nudes and makes it a work of art composition. 

Our shipwrecked, therefore, finds perfectly his place alongside studies (Fig. 9) that Philippe Grunchec relates closer to the larger landscapes executed around 1818 (Fig. 10, 11 and 12). In the preamble of his study on the posthumous inventory of Théodore Gericault, the author advances the need to 'correct the design according to which the artist has' fled the landscape ''deliberately''5,and emphasises the existence of  multitude studies of this kind. On his return from Italy, the painter performs a series of landscapes according to the principle of "hours of the day", inherited from the 17th century and Gaspard Dughet6. Today scattered, this decor7 represents three moments of the day: the Morning, the Noon and the Evening (10, 11 and 12).

Pierre Henri de Valenciennes shows us in his Éléments de Perspective Pratique that the artists divided time into four big parts: Morning, Midday, Evening and Night. The fourth hour is the  night. " On trouvait en chacune d’elles et à l’instantdéterminé pour chaque division, des contrastes plus décidés, des oppositions plus prononcées et des effets plus distincts "8. Might have Gericault failed in the treatment of the fourth "hour"? The Night is more precicely a scene of a  shipwreck, or nightly drowning, might this be closing the cycle of the monumental company, which the Raft of the Medusa came to interrupt9. Our survivor could therefore constitute the sketch of a figure intended to take place in a comparable composition of the Scene of Deluge at the Louvre Museum (Fig. 13). 

The theme of the shipwreck obsesses Gericault, who borrows from Joseph Vernet the dark atmosphere, the artificial lighting and the distress of men clinging to the rocks in the dramatic foreground landscapes (Fig.14).

According to Peter Schneemann, the extreme artificiality of the series of landscapes could be explained by Gericault`s will to see the "drama of the humanexistence "10. Our painting, therefore, appears in full light - the force vital to the man who tries to defeat Fate and survives the threat of this overpowering nature. As in The Flood of Nicolas Poussin, a feeling of loneliness emerges from the hostility, the darkness and the chaos, suggested in our study. Indeed, our painter brilliantly manages to internalise in this body all the anxiety aroused by the intensity of the drama. The idea of being sublime emanates from this work. In this vein, the castaway is isolated, surrounded by a cold palette, made of a blue-grey and of a chrome-green characteristic of English painting. Lost in this infinite space, it then seems like it`s suspended out of time. In an insightful balance, which mixes the universal and the intimate, a dialogue then takes place between the shipwrecked and the viewer. Faced with the "delicious horror"11 of the scene he is contemplating, he imagines the pain and danger he is spared. Mysterious, dramatic, powerful, our castaway study crystallises fears and worries of his time which the fourth landscape should reflect, and translates into painting all the thoughts of our artist:"I search in vain to support me, writes Théodore Gericault, , nothing is solid, everything escapes me, in everything I am mistaken. Our hopes and desires are really down here, that vain chimeras, and our successes, ghosts that we believe to seize. If there's for us on earth something certain, these are our punishments. The suffering is real, the pleasures are only imaginary. "12


1 Lorenz Eitner, Introduction, Théodore Gericault, [exposition, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York, 1987], New York, 1987, n. p.
Giorgio Vasari, cited by Marie-Pierre Chabanne, Michel- Ange romantique : naissance de l’artiste moderne, deWinckelmann à Delacroix, Paris, 2000, p. 518.
Johann Joachim Winckelmann, cited by Martial Guédron, La plaie et le couteau : la sensibilité anatomique deThéodore Gericault, 1791-1824, Paris, 1997, p. 72.
4 Louis Batissier, « Gericault », taken from la Revue du Dixneuvièmesiècle, Rouen, 1841, p. 4.
5 Philippe Grunchec, « L’Inventaire posthume de Théodore Gericault (1791-1824) », Bulletin de la Société de l’histoire de l’art français, 1976, p. 395-420, p. 395.
« N° 16, deux grands paysages, dans le genre du Guaspre », dans Charles Clément, Géricault, étude biographique etcritique, avec le catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre du maître, Paris,1879, p. 280.
See to this subject : Lorenz Eitner, « Two discovered landscapes by Gericault and the Chronology of his early work », The Art Bulletin, juin 1954, p. 131-142, Joanna Szepinska-Tramer, « Recherches sur les paysages de Géricault », Bulletin de la Société d’histoire de l’art français, 1973, p. 299-317.
Pierre Henri de Valenciennes, Éléments de perspective pratique à l’usage des artistes, suivis de réflexions et conseils à un élève sur la peinture et particulièrement sur le genre du  paysage, Paris, [1800], 1820, p. 405-407 et 427-456.
Gary Tinterow, « Gericault’s heroic landscapes, The times of the day », The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New York, 1990.
10 Peter Schneemann, « Composition du paysage et émergence du sens. La peinture de paysage et l’art des jardins autour de 1800 », Revue germanique internationale, juillet 1997, p. 155-170, p. 170.
11 Edmund Burke, Recherche philosophique sur l’origine denos idées du sublime et du beau, [1757], trad. de E. Lagentie de Lavaïsse, Paris, 1803, p. 131.
12 Lettre de Gericault à Dordy, citée dans Charles Clément, op. cit., p. 90.




We are grateful to Mr. Philippe Grunchec who has seen the painting and has fully accepted it as a work by Théodore Gericault.







Private Collection, France

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Fig.1: Théodore Gericault, l’Académie d’homme, detail, about 1816

Fig.5: Bastiano da Sangallo, Battle of Cascina after Michelangelo, detail, 1542, panel, grisaille, 76,5 x 130 cm, Holkham Hall, Norfolk

Fig.7: Théodore Gericault, a shipwrecked, 1817-1818, canvas, 73 x 59 cm, London, National Gallery

Fig. 9: Théodore Gericault, Male nude, 1818, canvas, 80 x 64 cm, Bayonne, Museum Bonnat-Helleu.