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Work The Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition

Department of Prints and Drawings: 19th century

La Libération des prisonniers de l'Inquisition

Prints and Drawings
19th century

Antoinette Maget, Régis Michel

The Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition testifies to Gericault's liberal political commitment late in life. It would seem that this drawing - together with three more on the same theme and a number of others, now lost - was a preliminary sketch for a panoramic canvas showing crowds of victims fleeing the prisons of the Inquisition. The painting was probably intended as a follow-up to the ambitious political message of the Raft of the Medusa; a date of 1822-23 seems appropriate.

An emotional trilogy

This drawing takes the form of a triptych whose various scenes each convey a specific emotion. The focal point is a truncated column with chains attached to it, an allusion to the underlying theme of incarceration and oppression. Towards the center a prisoner kneels, arms reaching skywards; this reference to Raphael's Fire in the Borgo introduces a religious note, although here the prayer-like gesture is in fact political. In the background a crowd of indistinguishable figures rushes into the prison: only the Phrygian caps - French Revolutionary symbols of liberty - and raised arms are clearly visible. To either side, more intimate groups counterpoise this outburst of collective joy: on the right a man still in chains is reunited with his family in a tender embrace; while on the left a couple enfolded in each others arms are the embodiment of Cupid and Psyche, freed from oppression. Beside them, two men support a third, much older figure: their expressively worked faces make this the most developed of the groups in the drawing.

Breaking the chains

Gericault's subject is the mass invasion of prisons filled with the victims of the Inquisition. Here, the artist seems intent on achieving an epic scale appropriate to the liberal struggle: Spain at the time was striving to cast off the remnants of its medieval past, and the French public was energetically debating liberal ideas. This preliminary drawing keenly conveys the quest for modernity of a painter intent on representing his personal view of the events of his time: the triumph of liberalism depicted here would have reinforced his own ultra-liberal stance.

Liberal idealism

The drawing expresses the ideal of liberty through the portrayal of a number of complementary groups: the common purpose of the crowd, with bourgeois and worker side-by-side, is the perfect expression of the liberal ideal. However, the groups to each side mitigate this euphoria: references to classicism and its attendant values of virtue and tradition are evident in the restrained joy of the family group and the couple's cold, immobile kiss. The group comprising the man in a bourgeois hat and another in a Phrygian cap, supporting an old man grimacing in pain, recalls the style of the Raft of the Medusa. Gericault's overtly political stance has the effect "sloganizing" his work: recoiling from the picturesque and determined to reinstate a sense of monumentality in the painting of his day, Gericault sacrifices detail in favor of a sweeping narrative, drawing events "in real time".


R. Michel, "Le dess(e)in de l'Inquisition", in Revue du Louvre, no. 5-6, 1991
P. Grunchec, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Géricault, Paris, 1991, no. 102, p. 102, repr.
R. Michel, Géricault, Paris : La documentation française, 1996
G. Bazin, Théodore Géricault-Etude, critique, documents et catalogue raisonné, Paris : Bibliothèque des Arts, 1997 (7 volumes and Appendices)

Technical description

  • Théodore GERICAULT (Rouen 1791-Paris 1824)

    The Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition


  • Black pencil, red chalk

    H. 41.9 cm; W. 58.1 cm

  • Collection of the painter Alexandre Colin (1798-1873); sale Paris 22 December 1859, lot 43. Binder Collection. Pierre Dubaut Collection (1886-1968). Gift of the Friends of the Louvre, 1991.

    The Liberation of the Prisoners of the Inquisition

    RF 42989

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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