The painting shown above is The Raft of the Medusa by T. Gericault ( 1791-1824)- oil
painting of 1818/1819, size 5m x 7m hung at the Louvre.
The Medusa was a frigate of the French Navy and was launched in 1810. After the fall of
Napoleon in 1815, the Bourbon house (creating an absolute Monarchy) was restored in
France until the July Revolution of 1830. After the Bourbon restoration The Medusa, with
limited arms, was used to transport officials from France to Senegal, as this colony was to be handed back to the French. The captain , whose loyalty to the monarchy was the
reason for him being recruited, did not have the necessary experience for this voyage and he therefore lacked the confidence of many of his crew members. Through poor navigation he struck a bank off the shore of Mauritius, resulting in the need to evacuate the vessel.
The captain and high rank officials took to the lifeboats with plenty of food supplies. The
rest of the crew had to resort to making a wooden raft. The intention initially was that the lifeboats would pull the raft, but as conditions deteriorated the connecting ropes were cut and the crew members were left to their own devices. There were 146 men and women on the raft, only 15 survived. The painting by Gericault illustrates the hope of rescue. The rescue boat is visible on the horizon, but sails away without seeing them.
The painting is comprised of analogous colours ranging from red- orange through to
yellow- green. The composition is triangular, the eye travelling from the bottom left to the apex , and then to the bottom right. Gericault has used different ways to depict this
tragedy. In order to bring the viewer closer to the scene he has used foreshortening as the large figures in the foreground push the horizon back. By isolating the men from the ocean the viewer is made to empathise with the situation. The figures on the raft show different emotions. The man at the top , waving the flag at the distant ship still has hope that they will be rescued, even though the ship has failed to spot them. Others seem to be resigned to their faith and have given up and believe they are about to die. Within the triangular composition which makes the painting more dynamic, Gericault draws the viewers attention to the different figures by using chiaroscuro and having them in different poses.
The doom experienced by the men is further enhanced by the dark painted wave and the dark cloud hanging overhead . Gericault has used linear perspective as the figures get smaller the further the distance, with a virtually invisible ship at the horizon. There is no aerial perspective as the distant colours are warmer than those in the foreground, and the edges of the picture are quite dark. All this has made the painting more dramatic.
The inspiration for this painting came from the account of two survivors. This was not a
story about bravery or self-sacrifice, it was one of the humans capacity for violence and
brutality when placed in extreme situations. This painting became an icon of French
Romanticism and an embarrassment for the French state. The interpretation of this event presented a contemporary tragedy between man and nature but also hit the soul of the nation. This painting was exhibited at the Salon of 1819 where it was viewed with a lot of interest. Everyone would have been aware of the political nature of this painting. Some were critical as its style was not entirely neo- classical and it did not depict the ideal man as hero. Others admired the painting as it was critical of the monarchy and depicted a contemporary tragedy.
Although the style of this painting is Romantic (characterised by emotion) , there are
influences from the neo- classical style as well . Gericault was inspired by The Last
Judgment of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine chapel and there are similarities in
how the figures are painted; muscled, well-built, curled, elongated, as would be seen in a
Baroque painting. Gericault in fact used Delacroix as one of his models. The classical
figures within a contemporary tragedy provided a link between the neo- classical and
Romantic styles. The drama in this very large painting did not elevate any heroes, God or
Monarch . Gericault was moving a little towards Realism, but in this style the men on the
raft would have been depicted unshaven, unwashed and injured. But the fact is they were not. The men depicted were all clean, well-built and there was no evidence of any fighting or disorder. The painting did not depict what really happened on that raft but it
nevertheless continues to strike a chord with many people.
Honour, H & Fleming, J ( 2009) A World History of Art, Revised seventh edition, Laurence
Gombrich, E.H.(1995), The Story of Art, Phaidon
Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Raft_of_the_Medusa
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