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  • Théodore Géricault - The Raft of the Medusa, 181819 - Image via wikimedia louvre france

Why The Raft of the Medusa is One of the Most Inspirational Works of Art

February 12, 2017
Behind the alias of Andrey V. lies Andreja Velimirović, a passionate content writer with a knack for art and old movies. Majoring in art history, he is an expert on avant-garde modern movements and medieval church fresco decorations. Feel free to contact him via this email: andreja.velimirovic@widewalls.ch

A piece that manages to capture the brutal, authentic and raw emotion to the best of the medium’s abilities, The Raft of the Medusa is an oil painting authored by the Romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault in the year of 1818. Completed when the artist was just 27 years of age, this artwork has become an icon of Romanticism and therefore presents a true milestone of the European artistic course. The Raft of the Medusa is an over-life-size painting that describes a terrifying and exhilarating moment following the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse. The French public was outraged when it found out what happened to the Méduse but was utterly shocked when they were presented with the painted version of the story – and make no mistake, French artistic community was never easily shocked. Unmerciful and uncompromising in the depicted brutality, the desperation on canvas is as devastating as the story behind the painting. Ultimately, The Raft of the Medusa became an inspiration for all the younger painters regardless of their visual preferences, quickly ascending to the iconic level[1] it still enjoys today. We shall now take a look at the backstory of The Raft, analyze it in detail and investigate how far reaching and strong its influence on the art history truly was.

In 1819, survivors of the 1819 shipwreck did not like the ship nor the captain
Théodore Géricault – The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19, on view in Louvre – Image via savagemythology.com

The Event That Shocked the French Public

It makes sense to start with the event that served as the inspiration behind the piece as the knowledge of Méduse’s fate is crucial in understanding the Théodore Géricault’s artwork. In the June of 1816, the frigate Méduse set sail with three other ships, setting their course for the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis which had been given to the French by the British as a sign of good faith to the reinstated king, Louis XVIII. Méduse held nearly four hundred people, as well as the new governor of Senegal. The role of the captain was given to Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, a 53-year-old man who had not been on a ship for twenty-five years and had never commanded a frigate before in his life. Since the captain was inexperienced, all the Méduse’s crew were interested in was traveling as fast as possible and were sticking close to the African shoreline in order to do so. The frigate quickly outpaced the other ships but it was simply floating too close to shore and inevitably hit a sandbar.

The crew decided to throw overboard extra weight in the hope of raising the ship out of the muck and floating out with the tide. However, scared and inexperienced, the captain Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys forbid them from getting rid of the cannons as he did not want to anger his constituents back in France. Eventually, the ship had hit the bottom of the ocean. The wealthy were given access and ample space on the lifeboats while the remaining 149 people were forced onto a makeshift raft which was tied by a rope to one of the lifeboats. At some point, the raft was either intentionally or accidentally cut loose. What followed was a two-week nightmare of stormy seas, brutal killings, insanity and cannibalism. Out of all the crewmembers that were placed on the raft, just fifteen men survived the ordeal and five of them died shortly after their rescue came to be. This tragedy became a major news event and scandal of its day, an international embarrassment whose cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the captain. De Chaumereys was court-martialed, then acquitted because the French feared ridicule from other nations for putting such a naive captain in charge.

Survivors of the famous London shipwreck wound up in Louvre, Paris, the gem of France
Jean Jérôme Baugean – An Illustration of the French frigate Méduse, 1810 – Image via wikimedia.org

Théodore Géricault and The Raft of the Medusa

Two years after the trial of De Chaumereys took place, the artist Théodore Géricault revealed his massive painting titled as The Raft of the Medusa. Eager to make a name for himself, the young painter had thoroughly researched the subject by reading a pamphlet written by two of the survivors[2]. He went to hospitals and morgues to study both the dying and the dead, after which he set a reconstructed raft out on the sea to see how it rode the waves. Géricault even severed body parts taken from the local morgue which he let decay in his studio and later use them as references. Théodore also worked from live models and interestingly, the artist Eugène Delacroix was one of them. Delacroix’s model is the corpse lying face down, arms outstretched, in the center of the composition. However, there were many inconsistencies within the depiction despite the fact the painter did such a deep investigation of what truly happened. Many of these discrepancies were done intentionally for dramatic effect and compositional balance – for instance, there are twenty figures rather than the accurate number of fifteen.

At the 1819 Salon, the painting was retitled as The Scene of a Shipwreck in order to avoid harsh reactions from the French government; a somewhat surprising decision considering how obsessed and dedicated Géricault was to the creation of the artwork[3]. Initially unable to find a buyer in his own country, Théodore exhibited the painting in continental Europe and England. A staggering number of over 40,000 people came to see the work in London and it was viewed with frightened fascination. Eventually, the work did sell and it was saved by the French government from a group of French nobility who intended to cut it up and sell it piecemeal. The painting can now be seen at the Louvre. It should be noted that Géricault died about five years after its completion at the age of thirty-two.

Théodore Géricault - The Raft of the Medusa (detail) - Image via documentingrealitycom
Théodore Géricault – The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19 (detail) – Image via documentingreality.com

Analysis of The Raft of the Medusa

The Raft of the Medusa is an iconic Romantic painting that introduced the movement that effectively substituted Neoclassicism. As such, the piece contained all the features that defined what Romantic meant. Its style relies on the drama and fluidity of the Baroque movement and utilizes loose brushstrokes, a strong and somber color palette, the sharp contrast of light and dark and dramatic poses. As were nearly all Neoclassical and Romantic painters, Géricault was as well strongly influenced by Michelangelo and therefore painted idealized, muscular bodies, which in this case are a strong contradiction to how the men truly looked. The sky and water are also definitely Romantic in nature as they depict drama, shadow and light, conveying the strong forces that these unfortunate humans are at the mercy of.

The massive size of the painting is in keeping with traditional historical pieces and their scales, although the subject here was a current event and, contrary to most historical paintings, there is no clear-cut hero(s) – instead, we are presented with victims. Perhaps the most striking feature of The Raft of the Medusa are the interlocking triangles, a common characteristic in Renaissance and Baroque paintings, as well as a clear-cut indicator of Théodore Géricault’s academic background[4]. The action is arranged in two distinct pyramidal shapes with two key peaks – the wave that may or may not engulf the survivors on the raft and the flag in the top right corner that is raised in a last gesture of hope. The two pyramids serve to isolate the two distinct possibilities: rescue or massacre[5]. Furthermore, the people on the raft are subtly divided into four separate groups; the dead and dying are in the middle, then there are those struggling to stand up, a third group is comprised of three figures huddled together by the mast and the fourth group is capped by the African man swinging the flag in desperation. Studying the painting from left to right, its obvious that the physicality of the figures intensifies – however, it should be noted that this does not necessarily include the emotional drama as well. This is best evidenced by the despondent father who holds onto the body of his dead son in the foreground.

The subject of Romanticism work in Louvre, Paris, France, and London are not like each other
Théodore Géricault – The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19 (two details) – Images via wikimedia.org

Why The Raft of the Medusa Is So Inspirational?

Over the course of the last two centuries, it has never been disputed that the Théodore Géricault’s masterpiece is a genuine landmark of modern painting and that it, as such, had a massive influence on many subsequent paintings. However, listing all the reasons why it is so crucial is a challenging feat that we shall now try to accomplish. First of all, The Raft of the Medusa managed to do what every painter wishes to achieve with his or her piece – to inspire a new movement, to give birth to a new style that will take over the scene. Théodore Géricault managed to do so as his masterpiece was the tiebreaker that allowed Romanticism to overcome the stone nature of Neoclassicism, directing the course of French art history[6]. The Raft of the Medusa was also one of the first pieces to feature a subtle social and governmental criticism, showing that artists can have an extremely loud voice if they desires to raise it. Many subsequent pieces and movements were based on the criticism of some sort and The Raft of the Medusa was often the inspiration for such a deed.

The composition of the piece is also quite inspirational as this aspect of The Raft of the Medusa was dissected countless times, just as the case was with the greatest of paintings made ages before Théodore Géricault was even born. This masterful composition strongly influenced arts history and many of its representatives, inspiring them to put as much effort as possible to constructing a perfect visual experience[7]. Besides doing this, Géricault has also allowed his composition to become a part of the narrative. The two separate components of the pictorial composition refer to two possibilities doomed men of the raft have to look forward to – rescue or death. This kind of subtle explanations really adds layers upon layers of meanings and materials to examine and explore.

Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19

Notable Artists Who Were Inspired by This Artwork

Due to the impact it had on the European scene, it comes as no surprise that many younger authors have created their own versions and interpretations of The Raft of the Medusa. Soon after its rise to fame, shipwrecks and stormy seas became one of the favored subjects of Romantic painters. Pieces like Francis Danby‘s Sunset at Sea after a Storm (1824), Eugéne Delacroix’s The Barque of Dante (1822) and J. M. W. Turner‘s A Disaster at Sea (1835) were heavily influenced by Géricault. Decades after the death of Théodore, artists were still trying to recapture the emotion of Medusa, like the case was with the Winslow Homer‘s The Gulf Stream (1899). Gustave Courbet also made many visual and creative decisions by investigating The Raft of the Medusa. Honoré Daumier and Édouard Manet as well saw Théodore Géricault as a source of inspiration, acknowledging that The Raft was a true stimulus and a valuable resource.

The Raft of the Medusa has also inspired many of avant-garde and contemporary authors as well. Max Ernst, Vik Muniz, Sandra Cinto, Louise Fishman and Kristin Baker have all created their own variations of it. Martin Kippenberger made an extensive self-portrait series based on it and Paul McCarthy has proclaimed it one of his favorite pieces. Frank Stella, Jeff Koons and Peter Saul have also created artworks that reference Théodore’s painting. All of these artists choosing to reinterpret or adapt The Raft regardless from the time when they created their arts is a clear indicator of just how much Géricault was able to capture the imaginations of countless generations.

Editors’ Tip: The Raft of the Medusa: A Novel

A novel based on historical fact, The Raft of the Medusa: A Novel reveals the turbulent life and work of Théodore Géricault, the great 19th century painter and how he came to paint a masterpiece that publicized a tragic maritime scandal and ultimately influenced the development of the Romantic style. Born to a rich and conservative provincial family, Géricault’s short existence was a struggle to achieve balance and order amid the unstable forces that plagued his mind and emotions. A passionate affair with his aunt ended traumatically with the long-concealed birth of their son, hastening the decline of a unique and provocative genius. All of the events from Géricault’s life, both tragic and happy, culminated in the form of The Raft of the Medusa, one of the greatest pieces ever put onto a canvas.

References:

  1. Anonymous, The Raft of the Medusa, Artble, 2015
  2. Alhadeff, A., The Raft of the Medusa: Gericault, Arts, and Race, Prestel, 2002
  3. Eitner, L., Gericault: His Life and Work, Orbis Publishing, 1983
  4. Eitner, L., Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, New York: Phaidon, 1972
  5. Riding, C., Staging The Raft of the Medusa, Visual Culture in Britain 5 no. 2, 2004
  6. Zarzeczny, M., Theodore Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Méduse’ Part I, Member’s Bulletin of The Napoleonic Society of America, 2001
  7. Zarzeczny, M., Theodore Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Méduse’ Part II, Member’s Bulletin of The Napoleonic Society of America, 2002

Featured Images: Théodore Géricault – The Raft of the Medusa, 1818/19 – Image via wikimedia.org