The Raft of the Medusa is a painting painted in 1819 by Théodore Géricault and currently kept in the Louvre Museum. This work, which marks the birth of romantic painting, represents a piece of bravery in which the painter took as his subject the drama following the sinking of the frigate Medusa on the western coast of Africa (1816). Among the most important artists of Romanticism, Géricault delivers here a “raw” realism and not an ideal, thanks to the choice of its subjects, by adding strength, emotion and passion.
The Raft of the Medusa:a true story
Théodore Géricault began painting at fifteen. Attracted by Michelangelo, Rubens and Caravaggio, he first painted military subjects. Théodore Géricault made himself known thanks to this work. He painted the story of four naval vessels, including the frigate La Méduse heading for the coast of Senegal. Faster than the others, La Méduse is advancing alone towards the coast of Mauritania, steered by an inexperienced captain who has not set foot on a ship for twenty-five years! Displaying a deep contempt for his subordinates and not listening to the advice of the sailors, the boat goes straight on a huge sandbank and...was shipwrecked. We are at the beginning of July 1816.
Throwed into the sea and abandoned by the commander on a makeshift raft, the castaways will suffer twenty-seven days before being rescued. Only fifteen will survive despite the hunger, the sun, the mutinies, even cannibalism... This event causes an enormous political and social scandal when two survivors tell their story in a book published in 1817. How did the administration could have let such an inexperienced man lead a ship….the only small consolation is that the captain is still sentenced to three years in prison…
Realism supersedes the ideal
Géricault, back from Italy, fascinated by macabre scenes, begins his work of four meters by seven meters. After a year of documentation, forty-nine sketches, a model of the raft, the study of the corpses as well as the use of the story of two survivors, he completed his painting in 1819. Not having received the reception envisaged for his work , he left for England and exhibited it in 1821…there was success. But he died in 1824 at the age of thirty three... This painting will be acquired by the State the same year. It is currently on display at the Louvre Museum.
The ocean takes up two-thirds of the painting, with the raft in the foreground. On rough seas, under a stormy sky, the one hundred and forty-nine survivors of the frigate La Méduse, some of whom are already dead, find themselves on this raft twenty meters long and seven wide. The staggering-looking men suffer and the survivors gather their strength. From the entanglement of these bodies forming a pyramid, emerges an able-bodied man who waves a cloth to attract the attention of the boat passing in the distance. The Argus coming to their aid, will only save fifteen of them.
Through the clouds, the light filters its rays on the bodies of the corpses who are pale. This accentuates even more the dramatic side, the horror, the suffering, and the death. Note that practically no feet are visible, Géricault not liking them, generally hides them under drapes. Last little detail:Eugène Delacroix is one of the characters...maybe the dead man in the foreground, his face against the raft.
The influence of Géricault's painting
The political character of the work is, moreover, indisputable. The commander's trial, which opened shortly after the rescue, would in fact become the trial of the monarchy and would rally the liberal opposition, and Géricault, by the choice he made of placing a black figure at the top of the pyramid, somehow betrays his opinions.
Bold by its theme but also by its fiery composition, its thick touch, its violent contrasts of shadow and light and the realism of the bodies, the Raft of the Medusa is in first exhibited at the Salon of 1819 at height, then at head height, and the violence generated by the direct confrontation between the painting and the gaze of the spectators, caused a real scandal. By thus upsetting the neoclassicism illustrated by David, this painting establishes its author as the indisputable founder of French Romanticism and opens the way to the generation of artists led by Delacroix.
To go further
- Géricault, biography of Jean Sagne. Fayard, 1991.
- The Great Painters - Théodore Géricault:The Raft of the Medusa, comic strip. Glénat, 2016.