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An Art Analysis of Theodore Gericault's Romantic Painting 'the Raft of the Medusa' (1818-1819)

Updated on February 12, 2018
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Asteriaa writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

Theodore Gericault

Artist:	Théodore Géricault Year:	1818–1819 Medium: 	Oil on canvas Dimensions:	491 cm × 716 cm (16 ft 1 in × 23 ft 6 in) Location	: Louvre, Paris
Artist: Théodore Géricault Year: 1818–1819 Medium: Oil on canvas Dimensions: 491 cm × 716 cm (16 ft 1 in × 23 ft 6 in) Location : Louvre, Paris | Source

What is Romanticism?

Romanticism (18th to 19th century AD) was a reaction again formal logic as a freedom of self-expression and artists’ reaction to inhumanity. Romanticism emerged as a response to the values of reason and order that were praised by the former art movement, Neoclassicism. Incorporation of symbolic ownership, beauty and religious ideals is expressed as a physical reflection on history. Figurative art takes a philosophical approach to the ideals of “human condition” in juxtaposition to nature. Social injustice in relation to politics and religion has been the driving forces for artists such as Theodore Gericault in reaction to the inhumanity around them.

History behind The Raft of Medusa

A new freedom of style, new mediums and self expression towards nature is incorporated in to this movement to create a personal, passionate and intimate reaction from the audience. Scenes of shipwrecks culminated in 1819 with Théodore Gericault's strikingly original Raft of the Medusa. The work was based on the wreck of a French frigate off the coast of Senegal in 1816, with over 150 soldiers on board. The frigate was initially captained by an officer of the Ancient Régime who had not sailed for over twenty years and who ran the ship aground on a sandbank. Due to the shortage of lifeboats, those who were left behind had to build a raft for 150 souls. The construction drifted away on a bloody 13-day odyssey that was to save only 10 lives. Gericault reacts to Géricault drew his inspiration from the account of two survivors of the Medusa.

Theodore Gericault's Self Portrait

Source

Gericault's Methodology

Géricault spent a long time preparing the composition of this painting, which he intended to exhibit at the Salon of 1819. He began by amassing documentation and questioning the survivors, whom he sketched; he then worked with a model and wax figurines, studied severed cadavers in his studio, used friends as models, and hesitated between a number of subjects. The result of this long preparatory period can be seen in two sketches now in the Louvre. There followed the period of solitary work in his studio, spent getting to grips with a vast canvas measuring five meters by seven. The painter researched the story in detail and made numerous sketches before deciding on his definitive composition, which illustrates the hope of rescue. Accordingly, the human and political aspects of this horrific event greatly interested Géricault.

The Mutiny on the Raft by Gericault

A sketch of the raft when Gericault was deciding how his artwork should look
A sketch of the raft when Gericault was deciding how his artwork should look | Source

Cannibalism on the Raft of Medusa

Cannibalism on the Raft of the Medusa, crayon, ink wash, and gouache on paper, 28 cm × 38 cm, Louvre. This study is darker than the final work, and the positions of the figures differ significantly from those of the later painting.
Cannibalism on the Raft of the Medusa, crayon, ink wash, and gouache on paper, 28 cm × 38 cm, Louvre. This study is darker than the final work, and the positions of the figures differ significantly from those of the later painting. | Source

Analysis of The Raft of Medusa

The artist provocatively reacts to the event through his vivid use of lines, tones as The Raft of the Medusa became an icon of the emerging Romantic style. Rumours of cannibalism, mutiny and murder occurred as survivors of the shipwreck were thrown into the fight for survival in its dramatic explicitness, emotional intensity, and conspicuous lack of a hero. According to Gerricault;

“Neither poetry nor painting can ever do justice to the horror and anguish of the men in the raft,” as his reflection of inhumanity is embedded in the work.

The Raft of the Medusa (Géricault)

Composition

Striking interlocking triangles, a common feature in Renaissance and Baroque paintings, expresses Géricault’s academic training. Gericault decision in separating the victims represents his morbid perspective on the event. Four divisions of the survivors on the raft consists of the pallid, moribund corpses and at the centre, the ones who struggle to stand, the ones at the pinnacle of a triangle near the mast whilst the fourth group's apex ends with the African waving the flag. Moreover, Gericault uses his art knowledge to react to the atrocity through his composition. Through the harsh realistic look on the event it is clear that Romantics, as through Gericault's examples, emphasises the prominence of emotional reactions to the world around them.

French Revolution, Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 “Liberty Leading the People”

 French Revolution, Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 “Liberty Leading the People”
French Revolution, Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 “Liberty Leading the People”

The Raft of Medusa and the French Revolution

Gericault furthermore uses symbols to convey his attitudes as perceived through the tattered, abandoned uniforms that lay motionlessly on the raft. This adheres to the abandonment of the captain within the historical event, furthermore symbolising the reasoning behind the French Revolution: the divisions of social classes. Hence the composition of the pyramid satires the social classes as the dying represents the mistreatment of the peasantry class. Therefore, Gericault dramatically responds to the corruption and downfall of the French government as emphasised by the symbolic oxymoron of suffering victims and the abandoned uniforms, and shaping.

Gericault satirically comments on the instability of the French government. This is reflected through the composition as the traumatic atmosphere of the victims act as a personified collapse of the government. For instance the raft creates a pyramid formation over the dying individuals in the lower left corner. Dynamic movements and pathos is indicated through the figure' illustrated in the foreground whilst the active figures are blurred or concealed in shadow. This introduces the notion of the 'survival of the fittest' as another triangle forms beside it with a man desperately waving a flag being at the pinnacle of the triangle. Gericault vividly comments on the motivations of the French Revolution through the pyramids.

Diagram of the pyramid structures in The Raft of Medusa

Diagram showing the outline of the two pyramidal structures that form the basis of the work. The position of the Argus is indicated by the yellow dot.
Diagram showing the outline of the two pyramidal structures that form the basis of the work. The position of the Argus is indicated by the yellow dot. | Source

Gericault's use of colour

Gericault responds to the sickening nature of the event. This is communicated by contrast by this given cruel emphasis by a Caravaggio-style chiaroscuro. This is utilised by expression and body language of the figures as some writhe in the elation of hope, while others are oblivious to the passing ship in the far background. Gericault had expressed this with an abundance of verve and boldness of light colours to emphasise illusion of hope against the traumatising event. This creates a powerful paradox to the ideals of beauty and hope of how such drastic emotions could be powerfully evoked into a painting.

Gericault, Raft of the Medusa

The shocking impact the event had on society is explored through Gericault's use of expression and colour. He uses objectivity on the event to depict storm clouds broken by light in contrast to the turbulent waves that are about to swallow the raft. Light hues focuses towards the ship in the distance. Bitterly this works against the putrefaction of cannibalism that is symbolised by the blood stained axe illustrated at the bottom of the raft. The concept of hope is confronted by the reality of the situation which is over emphasised by the father grieving the loss of his son, the two figures signifying despair and solitude.

Additionally, the artist contrasts the ‘face of death’ with the rays of hope’. Gericault had expressed this with an abundance of verve and boldness of light colours to emphasise illusion of hope against the the pallid bodies whilst, “the imagination alone produces colour (Gerricault.)” Gericault passionately responds to the putrefying atrocity that shocked the French public.

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