Théodore Géricault


In September 1817, the twenty-six-year-old Géricault began work on his epoch-defining painting Raft of the Medusa, generating hundreds of drawings and employing a wide range of models for his figure studies. Although, according to the testimony of survivors, there were no black men on the raft, Géricault included three in his painting. In this sheet, the artist combined hatching and rubbing the soft chalk to create a sculpturally modeled surface that is defined and enlivened by the fall of light. The effort of the model to hold the pose is evident in the carefully closed mouth, the flared nostrils, and the lift of his chin as he gazes at the distance.

Théodore Géricault
French; 1791–1824
Head of a Black Man, 1818–19
Black chalk


For his epic canvas, The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault made a vast number of drawings. That he would experiment so extensively is unsurprising given the vast scale of the painting, over 16 by 23 feet, and its complex and controversial subject. The artist chose to depict the fate of survivors of the wreck of a French frigate off the coast of Africa, an episode which contained elements of nepotism, incompetence, and government ineptitude, and caused a scandal in Paris.

But how to depict this catastrophe? What moment in the dramatic tale would represent the enormity of the disaster? As the novelist Julian Barnes lamented, "We start with the masterpiece and work backwards through the discarded ideas and near misses, but for Géricault, the discarded ideas began as excitements, and he saw only at the very end what we take for granted at the beginning."

Géricault could not foresee the composition. His explorations were both to resolve the painting, but also to fully explore each component part, sometimes in preparation for a figure and other times to gain a deeper understanding of the subject.

It is clear in sheets such as this head study that Géricault reveled in this research phase of the project, imagining and envisioning the experience on the raft, a real-life disaster that spoke to his liberal political views. While this study serves to capture the model, it is also a virtuoso performance of great sensuality, depicting the play of light over flesh and bone.