When I was in Los Angeles last week, I had a really fascinating conversation with my friend (and former Observatory presenter) Paul Koudounaris, author of the beautiful and essential book The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. I asked him to do a guest post on the topic of our conversation--a series of relatively unknown preparatory paintings for Géricault's Raft of the Medusa that were based on human remains checked out, library like, from the illustrious Paris Morgue; following is Paul's writeup; really fascinating stuff!
Despite being among the finest early nineteenth-century macabre-themed paintings, Théodore Géricault’s various versions of still lifes with human body parts have remained little known and commented upon. Géricault is best remembered as a pioneering French Romantic and the auteur of the massive Raft of the Medusa [see bottom image]—an over-life-sized painting of the survivors of a shipwreck which had been a tabloid sensation in France in the 1810s. While Géricault’s public personae was that of a hard-living, chaotic, and tempestuous personality, as an artist he maintained an often obsessive dedication. The ship known as the Medusa sank in June of 1816, and Géricault soon began preparatory studies for his painted version, including interviews with survivors, and the construction of a scale model of the raft on which they escaped.To find out more about Paul's work, you can visit his website by clicking here; you can purchase a copy of his book (highly recommended!) from the Morbid Anatomy Giftshop by clicking here. Paul will also be participating in this years's iteration of The Congress for Curious People at The Coney Island Museum, so stay tuned for more on that!
At the same time, Géricault also became increasingly interested in the naturalistic rendering of distressed anatomy, and started making frequent trips to morgues—in particular, that of the Hospital Beaujon in Paris. Initially these trips were intended simply to sketch body parts, but Géricault eventually found beauty in the severed limbs and heads he was studying, and began rendering them as subjects in their own right. At the time, there were programs in local morgues to lend human remains to art students for anatomical study—something like a lending library of body parts. Géricault would take them home to study them as they went through states of decomposition. He was known to stash various heads, arms, and legs under his bed—or alternately store them on his roof—so he could continue to render them in increasingly putrid states and in various angles. The upper torso in the so-called Head of a Guillotined Man in the Art Institute of Chicago (the title is misleading—the head is not guillotined) is one of those which is recognizable from multiple paintings, and is believed to be a thief who died in the insane asylum of Bicêtre; Géricault painted this head from multiple viewpoints over the two week period he kept it in his studio. In particular, the artist seems to have been fascinated by the subtle gradations of color body parts attained as they rotted.
He delighted in playing the morbid tones of putrefying flesh against a warm chiaroscuro which fades into a dark background and seems timeless and quiet, giving these anatomical fragments a presence that is almost iconic. Géricault made frequent jokes about the reaction of his neighbors to this kind of study—not surprisingly, they were displeased, especially with the smell emanating from his studio. Most of these paintings date to the later half of the 1810s. They were apparently entirely for the artist’s own edification—they were not sold to collectors, and most remained in his studio when he died at the age of 32 in 1824, and were offered as lots in his estate sale.
Perhaps the reason that Géricault’s still lifes with body parts have so frequently been overlooked is that they seem to defy interpretation, or lack any kind of editorial intent on the part of the artist. In that sense, they have always seemed perverse. Other, contemporary Romantic artists won great fame for their macabre scenes, but those scenes provide a context to guide the viewer’s reaction. In the Disasters of War by Goya, for example, severed body parts are placed within a moralizing relationship of cause and effect—war produces casualties, and the viewer is invited to disapprove of war itself as futile and barbaric. In various versions of the painting Nightmare by Henri Fuseli, macabre motifs such as demons are menacing, implying the threat of paralysis and loss of free will. But Géricault’s version of the macabre lacks this kind of interpretive framework—he presents his dismembered remains to the viewer simply as collections of objects, nothing more. His insistence on depriving his body parts of any identifiable context has ensured that they remain elusive, and thus marginalized in the history of art. But it is this same lack of context which has preserved them as unique objects of beauty.