A portrait signed Géricault, at auction, sheds new light on The Raft of the Medusa

A portrait signed Géricault, at auction, sheds new light on The Raft of the Medusa

For the painting, Géricault “looking everywhere for dying color», which he will find at the home of his friend Théodore Lebrun, affected by jaundice. Bridgeman Images

An intimate friend of the painter, Théodore Lebrun served as a model for the figure of the father who supports the corpse of his son in the foreground. His portrait will go on sale Saturday.

His jaundice made him a model of the Raft of the Medusa : almost 200 years after the death of the painter Gericaulta portrait of Théodore Lebrun, auctioned on Saturday March 18 by the house Osenatsheds new light on the famous painting.

A close friend of Théodore Géricault and himself a painter – his father, Tondu-Lebrun, signed the execution order for King Louis XVI -, Théodore Lebrun posed several times for the realization between 1818 and 1819 of the Raft of the Medusa, one of the stars of the Louvre Museum. Lebrun recounts, in a letter addressed to Géricault’s first biographer, that exiled to an inn in Sèvres where he was recovering from jaundice, he met Géricault who “looking everywhere for dying color” and the “find beautiful.»

Theodore Gericault, Portrait of Théodore Lebrun, Oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm (original canvas and stretcher). Estimate: 100,000 / 150,000 euros Osenat

The document, dated 1836 and well known to specialists, is “one of the first and rare testimonies on Géricault“, underlines Bruno Chenique, doctor in art history, specialist of Géricault, “whom Aragon presented as the James Dean of paintinghe says. The actor died at the age of 24 in a car accident, Géricault at 32 from a fall from a horse.

Lebrun, thirty years old, reveals how Géricault carried out in this inn, at his bedside, the first studies for the figure of the father who supports the corpse of his son in the left foreground of the famous raft. Once recovered but still weak, it will go to Géricault’s studio in Paris where the raft is being made and where the painter will do his portrait, auctioned on Saturday by the house Osenat in Fontainebleau, estimated between 100,000 and 150,000 euros. “It sheds light on the process of creating the Raft of the Medusaat a time when Géricault brought all the famous models and his friends to pose, including the young Eugène Delacroix“, explains Mr. Chenique.


The private life of Géricault, from a well-to-do Rouen family, has “causes scandal following his affair with his aunt by marriage and an illegitimate child“. Added to “quarrels of his descendants to recover his fortune“, it partly explains, he says, the absence of an archive on the painter whose work remains “scattered around the world“. But it is also because of thepolitical character“works of this”anti-Napoleonic, deliberately glossed over by generations of conservative art historians“, estimates the one who devoted to him”40 years” of his life.

As shown by, “even today, the multiple censorships that continue to depoliticize the Raft of the Medusa, as did the art critics who reduced his appreciation to aesthetic criteria“, he says. He regrets that the Louvre did not organize a major exhibition for the 200th anniversary of the painting in 2019.


Because for this enthusiast, the huge canvas (5×7 m) is a “allegory of Napoleonic political cannibalism and the colonialist-slavery empire which devoured its youth in the Napoleonic wars and has no future“. It is inspired by a news item: the sinking, off the coast of Mauritania, of the frigate Méduse in 1816, and the story told by two of the 15 survivors about approximately 150 sailors, subordinates and political opponents, who found themselves abandoned the sea by their royalist commander on a makeshift raft. After tearing and devouring each other to survive, they only owe their salvation to another boat, the Argus.

The past, represented by the father who carries his dead son, is Napoleon and the empire. He turns his back on the present, the human cluster in the process of resuscitating at the heart of the painting, and on the future, a young half-breed, at the top of the raft, a hero who waves pieces of red and white cloth to alert the Argus and carries blue panties, a reference to the republican colors“, he specifies. “It’s the future that will save his white comrades as Napoleon reinstated slavery“, he adds, a thesis supported by the historian Jules Michelet and the art critic Charles Blanc. The painting was only purchased by the French state after the painter’s death in 1824. In 2018, it featured in the music video shot by star couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Apeshit (furious madness), at the Louvre. This clip celebrates the success of two African-Americans and intends to defend the equality of cultures and the place of blacks in the history of art.

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