This painting by Gericault is such an example. When I first observed this painting before reading the placard associated with it, I was struck by feelings of loss and confusion. I was no longer just observing a painting, but instead, I was also thinking about my own experiences in which I felt disconnected and alone. In this painting the stark visual isolation of the main figure and his horse from their immediate surroundings is the dramatic expression of the composition. Once I realized how the painting had altered my internal feelings, I began to think about the power of this composition.
Then I read about the painting on its placard: “This figure’s uniform identifies him as a member of the hussars — notoriously fearless cavalry — in the French army. He sits astride his horse, at a distance from the raging battle, with his trumpet at his side. Trumpeters needed visibility to sound a charge or retreat, yet his isolation may also symbolize the widespread disillusionment with the French military after the fall of Napoleon in 1815.”
Gericault used this painting to express his feelings about the fall of the French military, so when he painted it, contemporaries viewing this painting would probably relate to the geopolitical attitudes of the day. However, 200 years later it still inspires in me a sense of isolation and disconnectedness. It is this ability to evoke emotions that makes a painting a true work of art.
Let’s look at this painting from a technical standpoint and explore the idea of how the isolation of a two-dimensional shape on the picture plane can conjure up feelings of isolation and loneliness.