An undeniable masterpiece of the 19th century, The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault is a true manifesto of Romanticism. Made between 1818 and 1819, this immense painting relives an important moment in French history: the sinking of a frigate off the coast of Mauritania. An analysis and closer look of the work reveals the many layers of this multi-faceted drama.
A tragic and grim event
The year is 1816 and a French frigate carrying over 400 men has set sail to colonialise Senegal. Captained by an officer of the “Ancien Régime” who hadn’t sailed in over twenty years, they hit a sandbank. Not having enough life boats, 150 men had to fashion a makeshift raft and set sail in hopes of survival. Géricault latched onto this subject when the news broke. He went to great lengths to interview survivors, make preparatory sketches, build model sets and study all that he could before making the greatest masterpiece of his life.
It is near impossible to stand in front of this painting and feel indifference. Géricault immortalises pure horror against a backdrop of hope. The men’s narrative is a fateful one indeed as they spent almost two weeks wandering at sea. The stories that came from the survivors were ones of agony and cannibalism. Of the 150 men, not more than ten survived. One can easily understand why his five by seven metre canvas outraged some and moved others: Géricault succeeded in speaking out against the French government and colonialism while making an exceptional work of art.
4 details you don’t want to miss
1. A double pyramidal composition
The Raft of Medusa has become legendary. Géricault’s work as a 28-year-old artist shows his genius through the fine attention to detail. Every brushstroke has been thought out and calculated. In addition to the use of chiaroscuro (a technique used by Caravaggio that contrasts light and dark colours), we notice a very obvious pyramidal composition. This setup points our eyes towards the sky and yet it doesn’t seem to instill a sense of hope. Instead, we somehow feel even heavier.
The canvas as a whole is a profound embodiment of Romantic art. Almost all of the figures’ bodies are turned towards the man who calls for help while waving a piece of cloth. He is the peak of the “invisible” pyramid on the right-hand side of the composition. All hands reach towards him. To the rest of the men on board, he is the strength they need to conquer their despair. The mast on the left-hand side sits slightly out of frame and taller the man on whom all hopes rest.
2. A display of death
The downward slope of the picture plane shows us that death has begun to drag souls under. Littered in lifeless bodies, Géricault leaves little up to our imagination about the atrocities of the situation. A man holds his dead son in his arms, others have given up hope and lay waiting to die while others slipped under long ago and are already immersed in water. It’s a perfectly captured tragedy.
As was already mentioned, dozens of preparatory studies were carried out so that Géricault could better understand the emotions and tone of the experience. This helped him integrate the figures’ postures and also their colours. Indeed, the skin colours here are important. Most of the flesh is already in the process of decomposition. The shadows that splay across the bodies and corpses give the canvas incomparable depth. After spending days lost at sea in harsh conditions, the fear of death grows stronger and each person begins fending for themselves.
3. When Delacroix joins the raft
Here we have a little cameo appearance by Eugène Delacroix, a great admirer of Géricault but also a friend and fellow artist. He posed for Géricault as the character face down on the raft, clinging to the beam. The question must be asked: has he already died? Or will he soon succumb and join the others around him?
4. A glimmer of hope
After days on end, a sign of hope appears on the horizon. The ship, Argus is pictured in the distance. After two weeks, 150 men had been reduced to 10. Some had gone mad, others had died of starvation or been eaten. The silhouette of the ship coming towards the raft surrounded by a heavenly light lets us know that this nightmarish scene is about to end.
A scene of pictorial and political intensity
Géricault dedicated his body and soul to this work. He had always been particularly attracted to the expression of neuroses, suffering and the evasion of death. Disappearing under suspect circumstances at the ripe age of 32, he is now considered to be the archetype of Romantic artists. What’s more, he was not afraid to use his art as a vehicle for political commentary. Part of the criticism this work received was due to his anti-colonialism message. A black man stands at the top of the pyramid, becoming the composition’s figurehead. This was clearly an anti-Royalist and anti-slavery message that Géricault artfully sent to the French government.
Géricault-inspired work on KAZoART – Roseline Al Oumami
On KAZoART, artist Roseline Al Oumani also studied the sea and its outbursts, but in an abstract composition. Her large canvasses full of strength demonstrate the powers of the waves and shows us how they can be a source of inspiration that transcend pictorial styles.