Gericault's painting was produced in his Paris studio in c.1818-19, and represents just one strand of the studies and research carried out which would eventually lead to the production of The Raft of Medusa, (1919) arguably Theodore Gericault's most famous, stirring and controversial work. The Study of a Model is discernibly painted from life, and represents Gericault striving to capture something that is very specific, detailed and so real it leaps off the canvas.
Gericault usually employed a technique whereby he sketched a human figure as central to any work, and would then give colour and life to that predominating figure before painting the remainder of the canvas. Gericault has opted in this instance for a murky, blackish brown backdrop with a tinge of light behind the model's head. This cunningly creates the semblance of a darkened window with a figure superimposed before it, yet without detracting from that haunted face with its every nuance and expression.
The identity of Gericault's model cannot be conclusively proved, yet Gericault was fascinated by accounts of slave rebellions in Haiti, and in general by exotic cultures. This was the century that would later witness the notorious overseas travels of John Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelites. Theodore Gericault is known to have been pro-abolitionist, and he cannot but have been drawn to the tragedy and pathos surrounding the 1816 sinking of Medusa off the African coast. Allegedly, this model is Joseph. He was a minor celebrity from Santa Domingo, formerly an acrobat, subsequently sitting for many painters and acquiring a reputation for physical beauty.
In his Study of a Model, Theodore Gericault has depicted Joseph wearing a shirt similar to the survivors of the Medusa. In 1816, a raft bearing 140 passengers from the ship foundered on the high seas for 13 days before being rescued, and there were only 15 survivors. The rest, presumably, were pulled dead from the water in front of those who had endured such a scarifying ordeal when abandoned by their captain. Gericault has animated Joseph's eyes with enormous empathy for his character. They appear fluid, wide and traumatised, their whites tinged red, and they are seemingly not focussed upon anything. A palette of warm brown, grey and beige hues form the model's skin, and the hair that curls on the nape of his neck and his ears has been so vividly conveyed it would almost seem possible to touch it, and gain a sense of its texture.