In 1908, the Friends of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent acquired a painting by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) for a bargain price at a Parisian auction. Entitled The Mad Murderer, the press speculated at the time as to who would be fool enough to hang such a picture in his living room. The painting – which in fact depicts a kleptomaniac – forms part of a series of portraits that Géricault painted of mentally ill patients in the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. These include, amongst others, Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon) and Portrait of a Kidnapper (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts).
The portraits, together with his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa, quickly cemented Géricault’s reputation as a painter of horror, pain, madness and death. The exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent which opened on 22 February brings together paintings, drawings, prints and documents to provide a fresh perspective on an artist who sought inspiration in reality and the different aspects of human nature. Through his exploration of the struggles of everyday life – occasionally pleasant but given the troubled and turbulent epoch, more often violent or deadly – Géricault attempted to solve the multifaceted riddle of humanity. In so doing, he was a deeply empathetic witness to the suffering of his models, whose faces were scarred by life. Géricault’s profoundly compassionate efforts to share not just the sorrows but also the joys of his contemporaries exhausted him, with devastating personal consequences.
Works by artists such as Fuseli, Goya, Delacroix and Menzel situate Géricault within the context in which he worked. This exhibition is presented in association with the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.