The Raft of the Medusa is not only considered to be a major work in French 19th century painting, but also an icon of Romanticism style artwork. Théodore Géricault, the painter, depicts the grotesque yet accurate tragedy involving a French Frigate off the coast of Senegal in 1816.
Géricault was inspired by the account of 2 of the 10 survivors, out of the 150 souls that were aboard. After being inspired by their story, I believe Géricault made a conscious effort to be authentic by extensively researching the naval accident before ever beginning to paint. He began by questioning the survivors and sketching them. He then worked with models, wax figurines, and even studied severed cadavers in his studio.
Once he had completed his large painting, measuring almost 5 meters by seven, the mix reviews began to pour in as The Raft of the Medusa was the centerpiece at the Salon in 1819. Critics and patrons alike were divided. The scandal that erupted after his decision to paint, and subsequently display dying and dead men, and cannibalism became quite a debate. The reactions differed not on the technique of how Géricault’s Raft was painted, but on the subject manner. As the online Louvre article describes, “devotees of classicism expressed their distaste for what they described as a ‘pile of corpses,’ whose realism they considered a far cry from the ‘ideal beauty.’” In addition, the general sentiment expressed was, “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?”
I believe Géricault’s work does express the paradox of “how could the painter reconcile art and reality?” but also shines light on the manner of human life. I believe that is why I found this particular piece so intriguing. Géricault must have anticipated the less than favorable reactions he would receive due to the subject of his artwork. However, by painting the carnage anyway he took an opportunity to convey a subtle message to anyone who views it. The message is in the composition, “which illustrates the hope of rescue.” Géricault could not change the outcome of what happened or the fate of the 140 lives that were lost, but what he could offer was the chance to experience, “the hope of rescue” that those men felt as they drifted on the raft. He hoped that within this single view, he could tell the entire story of the French Frigate that ran aground on a sandbank off the coast of Senegal in 1816.
Géricault knew that the painting would be disturbing in its graphic nature, but he wanted his depiction to be accurate. He wasn’t going to wash clean the haunting ordeal the survivors actually experienced in order to satisfy a few critics. Instead, he incorporated the visual details of the loss of life, the cannibalism, the despair, and most importantly, the hope, in order to give an accurate portrayal of what it was like to be there.
Similar to those 19th century art critics, I too was grossed out by the subject matter of this particular piece. However, after reading the article, I thought about the dilemma Géricault must have gone through and understanding that he composed the painting to display hope in all that horror makes me absolutely love this art work.
LAVEISSIERE S., MICHEL R., CHENIQUE B., Géricault, catalogue d’exposition, Grand Palais 1991-1992, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1991.