Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault

The Raft of the Medusa, created in 1818-19 and exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1819, is a huge painting in the Romantic style by Géricault, whose work I have mentioned before, here

This painting, which is a self-promotional piece Géricault created to advertise his skills as a painter of large-scale commissions, is based on an actual event in French naval history. The frigate Medusa ran aground on the coast of Mauritania, in Africa, in July of 1816. A few days later, more than a hundred people set off on a large raft, but by the time they were rescued 13 days later, only 15 remained alive, weakened by starvation and dehydration. It was a tremendous scandal at the time, mainly due to the incompetence of the captain, but probably in no small measure owing also to the sad fact that those who survived had to practice cannibalism.

Géricault was fascinated by the story and felt that it would make a good subject for a large, dynamic work. The Romantic style of painting was beginning to take hold in France, depicting emotional, dramatic subjects in contrast to the classical themes that had been the prevailing style. The terrible human tragedy of the Medusa fit right in, especially as portrayed by Géricault.

The painting depicts the raft, sloshing in the waves, covered with a mass of bodies—some clearly dead; some bent over and grieving the dead or trying to comfort the dying; one crouches with his hands to his head, lost in stress and despair. But there is a glimmer of hope, here: A ship can just barely be seen on the horizon, and those who have the strength have climbed up onto the highest point of the raft and are waving cloth around to catch the eyes of possible rescuers. Maybe Géricault was depicting the point of the actual rescue, as there are 13 people on the raft who are clearly still alive, and certainly a couple more who could be (some are clearly dead, and one body to the lower right of the painting seems to have the head submerged.

Géricault reportedly visited hospitals and morgues to observe the appearance of dead and dying bodies for the sake of getting skin tone and other details correct, although the individuals depicted in the painting seem fairly well-muscled to be suffering from starvation. Perhaps 13 days doesn't make much difference, but of course Géricault was also working from non-starved models, including his young assistant, the model for several figures on the raft, including the dead youth stretched out over the lap of the older man. At any rate, the musculature adds to the dramatic, tense poses that depict desperation, elation, torture, and agony.

The colors in this painting add to the emotional impact. This is not a sunny day on a blue-green ocean; the colors are dark and murky, with a foreboding sky and deep, dark shadows that contrast with the pale flesh of the corpses strewn across the foreground. Géricault is masterful at conveying movement, as well: the wind lashes the sail and billows the cloths of the signaling survivors. Sun slants down from the left side of the painting and illuminates a diagonal swath through the middle of the scene, picking up the slumping shoulders of a man hunched dejectedly over the body of a dead youth, then along the backs and outstretched arms of the people who are desperately trying to signal the boat. The use of this illumination cleverly leads the viewer's eye to the tiny boat by creating a path through the painting that culminates in the waving white cloth above it.

This painting is full of diagonals, which create the most dynamic compositional framework. The lighted path of the sun shining along the bodies goes from the lower left to the upper right; the mast with the sail tilts to the upper left of the canvas, surrounded by various other diagonal ropes, and the dead body in the lower right is also on a diagonal. The composition as a whole is a kind of X, with the southwest-to northeast arm emphasized more in order to guide the viewer's gaze along that path. There are no true verticals in the picture, and the expected horizontal—the horizon—is broken up by the swells of the ocean. Overall, this is another example of Géricault's mastery of composition and of creating a dynamic and powerful narrative with painting. It is hard to imagine that he was only 27 years old when he finished it, and sad to know that he lived only a few years more, dying in 1824. One can only imagine all the further masterpieces he might have created!

For more analysis of paintings, please check out the following:

Image: The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Musée du Louvre- Click image to view larger


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