The Raft of the Medusa is one of the greatest works of Romanticism, but its subject matter is decidedly un-romantic. Completed by Theodore Géricault in 1819, the painting depicts the bloody aftermath of the 1816 shipwreck of the French naval frigate The Medusa. The Medusa ran aground off Senegal, and of the 150 soldiers on board only 10 survived. Géricault performed extensive research to depict the harrowing ordeal of the shipwrecked sailors. Read to learn more about this painting that will leave you obsessively counting the lifeboats on every ship you board.
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Géricault did as much research as possible before he began painting. He interviewed Henri Savigny, Alexandre Corréard, and Lavillette, three men who survived the shipwreck, in order to make a scale model of the raft. He also made extensive sketches of cadavers in the Hospital Beaujon to accurately depict the stiffness of the corpses.
THE GRAY-HAIRED FATHER
On the lower left side of the canvass, a man with curly gray-hair can be seen. This shipwrecked soldier is further distinguished by the red cloak he wears on his head. The gray-haired man is characterized by his expression of despair as he clasps the body of his dead son.
PYRAMID OF BODIES
While the individual figures of the painting are detailed and worth study, the overall composition of The Raft of the Medusa is notable as well. The bodies, both living and dead, form two pyramids. The lower pyramid is made up of the dead and dying, while the upper pyramid is composed of those still fighting for life. The upper pyramid is purposefully designed to draw the viewer’s eye towards the distant horizon.
Géricault includes the just barely visible sail of the HMS Argus in the upper right corner of the painting. Survivors in the upper pyramid wave frantically at the distant vessel. Fortunately for the soldiers, the Argus would eventually come to their rescue.
The Raft of the Medusa gradually becomes more and more hopeful as you move from the lower pyramid to the upper one. The African Jean Charles is the apex of the upper pyramid. Charles stands atop a barrel and waves a red shirt at the distant Argus. Géricault’s decision to make an African man the centerpiece of his painting was a radical choice for the time.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
The Raft of the Medusa is a harrowing tale of triumph over adversity, but Géricault also encoded many tropes of Romanticism in the painting as well.
Not only was the painting something of a scandal in the art world, but it was a political scandal as well for France’s new Restoration government.
Visit this website to learn more about Géricault’s intense preparation for the painting. Warning: some of these images are grisly.
Géricault seemed to be drawn to morbid subjects. In addition to The Raft of the Medusa he is known for his evocative portraits of the insane. Check out this video:
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