A mirror to the harsh brutalities of the French government, the raft of the Medusa is a masterpiece by the legendary artist Théodore Géricault symbolising the oppression inferred on the weaker section of the society by the privileged members of the monarchy. This enormous artistic representation on a canvas of 491cm x 716cm vividly describes a catastrophic event in the 19th century that became an eye-opener for the public.
Medusa was a French warship heading toward Senegal in 1816, carrying about four hundred passengers. Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, a 53-year-old man who had not been on a ship in 25 years and had never commanded a frigate before, was appointed captain. Since the commander was inexperienced, the Méduse’s crew was only concerned with sailing as quickly as possible and staying as close to the African coastline of present-day Mauritania as possible. A shipwreck interrupted this voyage when the frigate inevitably hit a sandbar. The officers fended off the disaster by boarding the lifeboats and leaving their passengers and crew members to face the aftermath of the horrific misadventure. The victims built a raft to shield themselves, which was later cut loose intentionally or accidentally, serving as the title for this majestic painting.
This Raft of the Medusa was a 20 meters long platform that carried 150 people for 13 days wandering astray amidst the sea until it was found by the frigate Argus, with only 15 survivors.
This mishap was due to installing an inexperienced Captain for the ship, the failure to procure updated nautical charts, and various other instances of sheer negligence and entitlement of the French officers. The incident brutally scarred the public, who were well-informed of the incident through detailed journalism. This catastrophe became a huge news event and controversy of the day, an international disgrace whose cause was primarily attributed to the captain’s negligence. De Chaumareys was court-martialed, then acquitted, because the French were concerned about being humiliated by other nations for appointing such a naïve captain in command. The massacre empathised much more with this larger-than-life-sized painted view of human life abandoned to its fate.
The Odyssey and its aftermath of murder and cannibalism adversely impacted Géricault, who spent a long time preparing the composition of this painting, which he intended to exhibit at the Paris Salon of 1819. He was one of the few artists who redirected the narrative of war paintings aside from valour and towards adversity and mourning. He began by conducting a comprehensive analysis and interviewing the victims he sketched. He visited hospitals and mortuaries to observe the dying and the dead before launching a reconstructed raft into the sea to examine how it withstood the waves. Géricault even amputated body parts from the local mortuary and left them to rot in his studio before using them as references. He then worked with models and wax figures in his workshop, studied severed cadavers, and recruited friends as models; the artist Eugène Delacroix is one of them and debated between several subjects before finally achieving his goal. Two years after De Chaumareys’ trial, the artist Théodore Géricault unveiled his colossal painting titled The Raft of the Medusa.
The Raft of the Medusa is a Romanticism symbol. The application of great contrasts between light and dark emphasises the pallid bodies; some writhe in the elation of hope, while others remain unaware of the passing ship. It depicts two despondent people, one mourning his son and the other lamenting his destiny.
On its exhibition at the Louvre, The Raft of the Medusa received a prestigious award, but many critics panned the gruesome subject matter and repulsive realism. It received mixed reviews and comments, Le Journal de Paris remarked that “It strikes and attracts all eyes”, and a few viewed it as a “pile of corpses” .Géricault, dissatisfied with the reception of The Raft of the Medusa, brought the painting to England in 1820, where it became a phenomenal success. Over 40,000 people came to see the artwork in London, and it was viewed with apprehensive fascination. Following his death in 1824, Louvre director Comte de Forbin purchased the work of art from his heirs for the museum.
The Raft of the Medusa was one of the initial pieces to feature subtle social and governmental criticism, showing that artists can influence society with their opinions. It inspired many artists to resist Neoclassicism’s rigidity and embrace the Renaissance‘s fluidity and dramatics. Many subsequent pieces and movements were based on criticism, often seeking inspiration from The Raft of the Medusa. The. Painting offers an insight into French society and attempts to sensitise the viewers to the effects of war. The artwork has an open-ended perception, where the doomed men can either be rescued by mankind or by The Creator in the form of death. Either way, escaping the conundrum is the ultimate bliss for the captive.
- “The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault: Where You Can Admire It.” The Art Post Blog | Art and Artists Italian Blog, 22 Jan. 2018, www.theartpostblog.com/en/raft-medusa-gericault/#:~:text=Therefore%2C%20the%20tragedy%20of%20The. Accessed 9 Feb. 2023.
- kiamaartgallery. “Romanticism – Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19.” Kiama Art Gallery, 16 Apr. 2015, kiamaartgallery.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/romanticism-gericault-raft-of-the-medusa-1818-19/. Accessed 9 Feb. 2023.
- “Why the Raft of the Medusa Is One of the Most Inspirational Works of Art | Widewalls.” Www.widewalls.ch, www.widewalls.ch/magazine/the-raft-of-the-medusa. Accessed 10 Feb. 2023.
- Britannica. “The Raft of the Medusa | Painting by Géricault.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/The-Raft-of-the-Medusa. Accessed 10 Feb. 2023.
Citations for images/photographs – Print or Online:
- Image 1- (URL: https://artforus.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/the-raft-of-the-medusa/)
- Image 2 – (URL:https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/france/articles/raft-of-the-medusa-louvre-explained/)
- Image 3- (URL: https://discover.hubpages.com/education/Romanticism-Analysis-of-Theodore-Gericaults-The-Raft-of-Medusa)
- Image 4- (URL:https://artincontext.org/the-raft-of-the-medusa-theodore-gericault/)