A key figure in French romanticism was Théodore Géricault, who shifted the emphasis of battle paintings from heroism to suffering and endurance. Géricault’s masterpiece, Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), portrays on a heroic scale the suffering of ordinary humanity.
The Raft of the Medusa is generally regarded as an icon of Romanticism. It depicts an event in which the human and political aspects greatly interested Géricault: the wreck of the French Royal Navy frigate Méduse off the coast of Senegal in 1816, with over 150 soldiers on board.
It was captained by an officer of the Ancien Régime who had not sailed for over twenty years, and who ran the ship aground on a sandbank. Due to the shortage of lifeboats, those who were left behind had to build a raft for 150 people which resulted in a bloody 13 day odyssey which only 15 people survived.
The disaster of the shipwreck was made worse by the brutality and cannibalism that followed.
The painting stands as a view of human life abandoned to its fate.
The pallid bodies are given cruel emphasis by the use of strong contrasts between light and dark; some writhe in the elation of hope, while others are unaware of the passing ship. It includes two figures in despair and solitude: one mourning his son, the other bewailing his own fate.
Géricault spent a long time preparing the composition of this painting, which he intended to exhibit at the Paris Salon of 1819. He began with extensive research and questioned the survivors, whom he sketched. He then worked with a model and wax figurines, studied severed cadavers in his studio, used friends as models, and hesitated between a number of subjects before finally completing the work.
Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa was the star at the Paris Salon of 1819: “It strikes and attracts all eyes” (Le Journal de Paris). Critics were divided: the horror and “terribilità” of the subject caused fascination, but devotees of classicism expressed their distaste for what they described as a “pile of corpses”.
Géricault’s work expressed a paradox: how could a hideous subject be translated into a powerful painting, how could the painter reconcile art and reality?
This is an excerpt from my online modern art appreciation program http://www.modernartappreciation.com