Théodore Géricault (French, 1791-1824)
The Raft of the Medusa
Oil on canvas
Paris, Musée du Louvre
This picture is rated PG-13!
Imagine being shipwrecked off the west coast of Africa. The year is 1816. The captain has left the sinking ship and you and about 150 people have to build your own raft. You float on the open sea for 13 horrible days. Only 10 people survive. Describe your feelings.
Géricault painted the fate of some of the people on the French Royal Navy Frigate ship (warship) "Medusa" (named after the hideous monster from the Greek myths who had snakes for hair). France was being ruled once again by the monarchy. The government of the king was corrupt and dispatched several ships to sail to Senegal. Their mission was to reinstate Senegal as a French colony. A clueless, royalist captain was put in charge of the ship. He wanted to get there first and sailed too close to the coast running the Medusa aground into a sand bank. There were 400 people on board. There were not enough lifeboats and about 150 people were left behind and had to fend for themselves. They built a makeshift raft made of scrap wood from the destroyed ship. Look at the raft, is this a sturdy structure? It measured 20 x 7 meters. Was that big enough for 150 people? Think of about 6 classrooms stuffed onto a raft this size. At first they were towed by the lifeboats. When the towing became cumbersome the vile captain, who was in a comfortable lifeboat, ordered the ropes cut and the raft was left to drift on the open seas. Thirteen days of hell ensued. There was no food, no water, only some wine.
Only older kids will guess how they survived. What do the men on the raft see in the far distance? They are waving and shouting to the "Argus", one of the ships that had been on the same mission. Can you spot her in the distance? At first she did not see the raft and sailed away but two hours later returned and brought the remaining men back to France.
Géricault painted this massive canvas in 1818-19; , three years after the horrible event took place. It measures 491 x 716 cm, so the figures are about twice life size.
What moment of the ordeal did Géricault choose to paint? Would you describe it as the moment of horror, hope, despair?
The 25-year-old Géricault had become obsessed with the story: He had a copy of the raft built in his studio; he interviewed two survivors; he went to the trial of the captain (who only served three years in jail); he went to morgues to study corpses; and he made many sketches and studies on paper and canvas. Friends such as Eugène Delacroix, the great Romantic artist (Delacroix's Liberty Leading the
People, previous newsletter), posed as models. He is the man at the bottom tip of the triangle with his arms outstretched. Who, amongst the survivors is mustering his last strength to be hopeful and who has given up? Have some gone insane? Is the overriding mood of the painting one of hope or of despair?
Do you think Géricault looked at Caravaggio and his chiaroscuro technique (newsletter...) He had previously also studied Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
Are there many colors in this canvas? What is the shape of the people that are huddled together? Does the orange sky indicate sunrise or sunset? Can you spot a French uniform and an axe?
What is Géricault telling us? Do you find the picture nightmarish, hauntingly beautiful or too gory? Do you see it as merely critical of the monarchy or does it also contain a message of hope?
Perhaps you feel all of the above. It is a monument of Romantic art in which the artist shows raw feelings and real life events. He does not sugar coat the reality of humans in an extreme situation.