A radical work of art
In 1819, a young man bolted through the streets of Paris. Years later, he said he must have looked crazy as he ran all the way home. He was the painter, Eugène Delacroix, and he had just seen Théodore Géricault’s astonishing painting, Raft of the Medusa, in the painter’s studio. Today, visitors to the Louvre museum stop in front of the painting as they make their way through the galleries, but in 1819 it was a truly radical work of art that astonished everyone.
A scene of desperation
The canvas is massive, measuring just over sixteen by twenty-three feet, so large that Géricault had to rent a studio big enough to house it as he worked. Standing in front of the painting, we see a raft, built of scrap lumber, rocking on the ocean waves. The eye is first drawn to the intertwined figures moving up the canvas to the right, bodies extended together as their arms gesture upward in a strong diagonal. At the top of the group, a Black man waves a piece of red and white fabric, signaling to a tiny ship deep in the background, as does a lighter skinned figure below him. All of the living people depicted in this striking pyramidal composition eagerly seek rescue, but among them are the dead and dying.
At the bottom left are those who have lost hope and the already dead. A grey-haired, bearded man, clad in a red head-covering, sits on the raft with his head resting on his right hand. His left hand grasps the torso of a pale young man, presumably his dead son, whose limp, alabaster body remains precariously extended on the edge of the raft.
Bodies on the verge of slipping beneath the water populate the lower portion of the painting. To the left of the father-and-son pair, we see the top half of a man arching back while his lower body, presumably, floats below. To the right of the father and son, lies a dark-haired figure, modeled by the artist Delacroix, lying face-down with his lower arm extended over a piece of wood. Next to him a pale corpse garbed in a white, with his legs caught in the wood of the raft, lies on his back with his head lost in the water of the ocean. The murky amber and green tone of the painting with strong contrasts of light and dark remind us that this is ultimately a scene of death.
The father and son are near the base of another, larger triangle, that reaches up to the top of the mast with its billowing sail and down the rope on the other side of the composition.
150 people set adrift
When the work was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1819, the public would have recognized the subject. It had been in the news just a few years before and quickly grew into a political scandal. In July 1816, a French naval ship, Medusa, was its way to Senegal carrying the new governor of the colony, his family, and some other government officials and others. The government officials came to secure French possession of the colony and to assure the continuation of the covert slave trade, even though France had officially abolished the practice. Another group aboard the Medusa was composed of reformers and abolitionists who hoped to eliminate the practice of slavery in Senegal by engaging the local Senegalese and the French colonists in the development of an agricultural cooperative that would make the colony self-sustaining.
The captain of the Medusa, who had received command of the ship through royal patronage, accidentally ran the ship aground on a sandbar off the coast of West Africa. The ship’s carpenter could not repair the Medusa and the decision was made to put the governor, his family and other high-ranking passengers into the six lifeboats. The remaining 150 passengers found themselves packed onto a raft made by the carpenter from the masts of the Medusa.
The group on the raft included lower-ranking military men, colonists, and sailors of European and African descent. The overcrowded makeshift raft, just 65 x 23 feet, was lashed to the lifeboats, but it impeded their progress so the more elite passengers in the boats took axes and cut the lines to the raft, casting it adrift. Of the 150 people aboard the raft, 15 were rescued by the Argus—the ship that we can barely see at the back of the canvas—and only 10 ultimately survived to tell the tale of cannibalism, murder, and other horrors aboard the raft.
Ripped from the headlines
There had never been a painting like Raft of the Medusa. It was on the grand scale of French history painting (think, for example, of Jacques Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii) but instead of ideal forms and a moralizing story from history, Géricault offered the Salon audience a thoroughly modern, Romantic depiction of death and suffering based on a contemporary event that was in the news. To create his painting, Géricault investigated everything about the story of the raft and talked with many of the survivors. He then brought all of the research together to create a radical painting that responded to the conservative tradition of history paintings.
Gericault first learned about the disaster in the Paris newspapers. Then two of the survivors, the ship’s surgeon, Henri Savigny, and the engineer, Alexandre Corréard, published accounts of their experiences on the raft. Géricault interviewed them both and worked with other survivors as well. The painter went to the French coast to study the movement of ships on the water. He examined images of the raft’s design and the Medusa’s carpenter, who had built the raft, gave Géricault a miniature copy of it. Géricault began drawing the bodies of the living and the dead, then working out the scene in watercolor and oil sketches trying to figure out what the show the viewers and just how to do it. The process required over 100 studies that moved through each episode of the story.
Tradition and radicalism
Gericault settled on a moment of, seemingly, false hope when those on the raft saw a ship, the Argus, and frantically tried to signal for rescue. The Argus passed them by but returned two hours later to rescue those who remained on the raft. In many ways the painting conformed to the expectations of the Salon, whose audience was accustomed to traditional history paintings. The canvas’s size signaled that it was following that tradition as did the highly organized composition based on two intersecting pyramidal forms that emphasized the unity of action.
The viewers also recognized the poses of the figures. The view of the back of the man at the top of the triangle of figures signaling to the Argus, for example, was based on the famous Belvedere Torso, a fragment of a Classical sculpture depicting muscular nude male figure known by all artists in Europe. The older man grasping the body of his son recalled the Ugolino and his children, a story from the Renaissance writer Dante that inspired many artists. For many, the heightened emotion and tense figures called back to Michelangelo who inspired both academic and Romantic artists of the period.
Despite these more traditional elements, Géricault challenged everything about the conservative approach to art in Raft of the Medusa. The unified moment of a history painting, that should teach a lesson of moral virtue, is instead a scene of horror. The suffering figures then turn their backs on the viewer in a dark, dramatic light, reminiscent of Caravaggio. In a history painting like Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, for example, the painter presents the men and women directly to the viewer with a clear, even light, that makes it possible to see everything. In Raft of the Medusa, most of the living men depicted turn their backs on the viewer and the bodies that extend toward us are corpses. The carefully composed groups of figures and allusions to past art do not mitigate the impact of the dead bodies depicted on the raft and the futility of their loss.
The figure based on the Belvedere Torso waving the red and white scarf challenged expectations as well. Instead of using a man whose light skin would mirror the white marble then associated with Classical sculpture, Géricault employed Joseph, a well-known model of Haitian descent (known to us only by his first name), whose dark skin challenged that expectation. The inclusion of a number of Black figures, modeled by Joseph, served to remind viewers that the voyage of the Medusa was embedded in colonization and the slave trade.
Shocking and new
No one who wrote about the painting in 1819 was unmoved. Conservative critics and writers were appalled and accused Géricault of creating a disgusting, repulsive mistake. More progressive writers who supported the modern, Romantic approach marveled at the artist’s shocking painting that caused them to tremble and admire the scene of the horrific events on the raft. When he ran through Paris after seeing Raft of the Medusa, completed in Géricault’s studio, young Delacroix experienced that same shock. He had seen something completely new that challenged every expectation for history painting and experienced an entirely kind of painting on a grand scale.
Lorenz Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (Phaidon, 1972).
Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Théodore Géricault (Phaidon, 2010).