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The Raft Of The Medusa By Théodore Géricault: Great Art Explained

This is the story of a group of 147 men, abandoned 
on a makeshift raft after the ship ran aground   off the coast of Africa. There followed murder, 
class warfare, mutiny, starvation, unimaginable   depravity, and the ultimate taboo… cannibalism.
This is the story about the painting of that raft, which shook the world, and scandalised hi gh society.
Not only for its anti-royalist statement, but also for   its choice of a black man as the hero, in an age of 
slavery. Only this is not a story – this is all true. Théodore Géricault was the 
embodiment of a tortured genius.   A young, good-looking rebel with an adventurous 
personality, who endured a tormented love life,   and re-occurring bouts with depression and 
illness. His tragically short life, fit the   mold of Romantic artists, and his provocative 
paintings, profoundly influenced 19th century art.  In 1818, he was looking for a subject matter that 
would make his reputation. Something contemporary   that would bring a touch of reality to 
the stuffy genre of the “History painting”. “The Raft of the Medusa” was painted only two 
years after the French frigate, the Medusa,   and three other ships, sailed for the 
French colony Senegal in West Africa.   An inexperienced captain would run the Medusa 
aground. A shortage of lifeboats meant that only   the upper classes and senior officers would be 
allowed to board them. The lower classes and a   handful of crew left behind, had to build 
their own makeshift raft for 147 people.   Lifeboats briefly towed the raft until, in an act 
of cowardice and cruelty, the captain cut it loose,   to drift away on a bloody 13-day odyssey.
On the very first night adrift, 20 men were murdered.  And by the fourth day, there were only 67 people left 
alive. They had resorted to murder and cannibalism   to survive. When the raft was found 13 days 
later, only 15 of the original 147 had survived.   1815 was a turbulent year for France. 
Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo,   the French monarchy was restored. The new King 
gave unqualified men jobs – as a political favour.  And the captain of the Medusa was one of them.
He hadn’t been to sea for over 20 years and would   become a symbol of government corruption. 
The social and political turbulence that   plagued French society was exposed, and France 
itself was now considered a political shipwreck.   Géricault’s choice of subject matter 
would be deliberately provocative. Géricault knew the subject would make or 
break him. He immersed himself in the project, which he planned to exhibit at the 
Paris salon of 1819. He obsessively devoured   all the information he could find out about the 
disaster. His quest for authenticity led him to   the morgues and hospitals of Paris to observe 
dead bodies and putrefying flesh. He brought back   body parts to his studio to study and sketch.
He took a severed head from the lunatic asylum  and kept it on the roof of his studio for two weeks, so 
that he could draw its features as it decomposed.   He questioned some of the survivors, who he also 
sketched. Alexandre Corréard, who was an engineer   on the ship, had co-written a book about his 
experience, and he would feature in the painting. Henri Savigny was a doctor on board 
the ship, and co-author of the book.   He too would appear in the painting. It was their 
version of events which would inspire Géricault.   Another survivor, the ship’s carpenter called 
Lavillette, built a scale model of the raft  to be reproduced on the finished canvas. 
Lavillette also featured in the finished painting. Having made hundreds of preparatory studies, 
Géricault struggled to decide on which moment   would best capture the real drama of the event.
Among the scenes he considered were: The moment   the lifeboats abandoned the raft. Mutiny against 
the officers from the second day on the raft.   The cannibalism that occurred after only 
a few days, or the finale: The actual rescue.   Géricault ultimately settled on the moment ,
when they saw the ship “Argus” on the horizon.   Which you can just about see in the distance.
As in the painting, they made an attempt to signal help.   Over the years people have interpreted this as a 
sign of hope, but actually in real life the ship   didn’t see them, and passed by. Géricault chose the 
most intense psychological point where every tiny   sliver of hope they may have possessed was snuffed 
out. This may have been a reflection of Géricault’s   own situation. He had just been forced to break 
off an intense love affair with his married aunt.  Géricault spent a year researching and planning 
his painting. He took a studio in the suburbs   of Paris, big enough to house the massive canvas 
of about five meters by seven. (or twenty three feet by sixteen). Being away from Paris meant 
he would have no distractions. He shaved his head, cut himself off from society, set up a bed in 
the studio, and had meals brought to him. He worked   in silence, and visitors were not allowed. 
The immersion was complete, and the serious work began.  “History paintings” were regarded by the French 
Academy as the highest form of western painting.   Considered the equivalent of epic literature.   They usually portrayed historic and noble acts, 
with a clear hero. Géricault, would turn that idea on its head. His painting would contain the gestures, 
and grand scale of traditional history painting,   however, it would present the common man 
struggling with contemporary disaster,   rather than historic heroes. This history was only 
two years old, which makes it social commentary. But how do you even begin painting on such an epic 
scale? For a painting this size, you would normally   use a coloured ground or an under colour. You need 
a good mid-tone so that your dark and light tones   stand out. As you can see here, this is particularly 
important when planning large scale works. instead, Géricault worked 
directly onto the white canvas.   He would use a drawing, and then grid it.  He scaled up the outline onto the canvas. He would concentrate on one square at a time. Until it was finished, like a fresco painter, then he’d move on to the next section.  As if he were putting together 
a giant jigsaw puzzle. Along with his numerous   oils and sketches, this meant his design choices 
were resolved before he even picked up a brush. One of the first things that strikes 
you, is how close to the action we are.   The figures in the foreground are literally 
falling out of the canvas. The raft itself takes up   the entire lower half of the painting, and it seems 
as if we could simply step onto it and join them.   We are therefore included in the drama as a 
participant, rather than a detached observer.   The horizon is also high, making us feel 
as hemmed in by water as the men were.   It would be a very different 
painting with a low horizon.  in the painting we have the impression the 
raft is square, but in fact if we look at   Lavillette’s original drawing of the raft, we can 
see Géricault chose to only depict one small section.   Here we can see a modern reconstruction 
of the raft with 147 people on it.  Tight cropping of the painting, pushes the action 
into our space and focuses the drama.  The rest of the raft is actually in the painting, but 
submerged. Overall the painting is very dark and   relies largely on the use of sombre brown, black, 
and grey pigments. The outer areas of the painting   are fairly uniform mid-tones, but if you squint 
your eyes, you can see that where the action is,   are the areas of contrast of light and dark. 
The Chiarascuro elements. Géricault has created a   sweeping thrust of light, running from the 
dead on the left, to the living at the apex.   Giving the picture drama and movement. The 
painting is constructed on two pyramid structures.   They emphasize not only classical 
composition but also the progression   from despair at the base to hope at the peak.
Two pale figures anchor the painting’s composition;   On the left an older man hangs onto the body 
of his dead son. Rigor mortis has set in and his   legs hang off the raft diagonally towards the 
corner. This is matched on the opposite side of   the painting by another pale corpse hanging off 
towards the lower right corner. In such a busy   chaotic scene, structural elements like these 
are necessary to pull the painting together. Despite Géricault’s obsession with accuracy, he 
decided to have the scene set in the middle of a storm. In reality, it was a clear sunny 
day but Géricault wanted heightened drama. He had traveled to the coast regularly, and took 
a raft out during storms to study the raging seas. It is not just his depiction of the weather 
that is inaccurate. In reality the survivors   were emaciated when they were found, but Géricault 
presents them as muscular idealized heroes.   Again, this references the tradition of 
history paintings. He wanted to elevate reality, not reproduce it. We can compare both 
the idealized figures and the composition   to Michelangelo’s “Last judgment” which 
Géricault studied closely when he was in Rome. I do think that Géricault set out to be provocative, 
but depicting some of the true horror would have   been a step too far. Instead he alludes to it.
Remember that for viewers at the time   all of the grisly details were well known. Here 
we have the concealed bloody axe, which recalls   the night the soldiers decided – who would live 
and who would die – and slaughtered the weak.   Many viewers don’t see that the torso on the left 
is missing its lower half and was cannibalised.  The old man’s arm is bandaged, so maybe he fought 
to protect his dead son from also being eaten? This image was no doubt inspired by a work by 
Henry Fuseli, based on a story about cannibalism,   from Dante’s Inferno. The father is the only 
figure who looks towards us. He is wracked   with silent grief and hopelessness. Five of 
the 15 survivors died within days of rescue.   Behind him in the shadows, another tears 
his hair out in frustration and defeat.   There are six figures in the foreground,
of which three are still alive. The dead are   painted in the greens that Géricault observed on 
the decaying body parts he brought to his studio.   It looks like a fourth man flopped face down 
on the timbers will soon join the dead.   That man in the foreground was modeled by Géricault’s 
friend and fellow painter, Delacroix, who had   jaundice at the time. Delacroix’s own painting 
would be inspired by The Raft of the Medusa. If Géricault’s elevation of the common man was 
groundbreaking, his choice of a black man as the   most heroic figure, would be revolutionary. Slavery 
would not be fully abolished in France for another   30 years AFTER the painting’s debut, and yet here 
we have Jean Charles, the only black survivor,  at the very apex of the painting signaling, for help. 
All eyes are on him. He is both survivor and saviour.    The majority of the paintings and sculptures 
in Western art are devoid of black bodies, and   this is one of the first uses in art of a black 
figure to symbolize the hopes of all humanity.   Géricault’s choice was a bold reflection 
of early abolitionist sentiment.   In 1819, establishing a black man as the 
most heroic figure in an epic painting,   was shocking. But Géricault was determined 
to embed the politics of abolitionists   within the painting. If we look carefully, 
we can see that Jean Charles holds on   to the hand of the man behind him.
It is an intimate and beautiful gesture of solidarity. Géricault intentionally sought to be both 
politically and artistically confrontational.   And critics responded to his aggressive approach 
in kind. Their reactions were either one of revulsion or praise. Depending on their politics. 
One critic described it as “a pile of corpses”.   Another as a “masterpiece” Géricault’s great 
painting, the result of two years of work,   remained unsold – and failed to bring him the public 
success he craved. He produced hundreds of works   but died unhappy with his artistic achievements,
and in poverty at the untimely age of 32.   After his death, the Louvre finally 
bought “The Raft of the Medusa”,   and today it IS considered a masterpiece. In fact 
it is second only in popularity to the Mona Lisa.
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