The Raft of the Medusa
|French: Le Radeau de la Méduse|
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||491 cm × 716 cm (193.3 in × 282.3 in)|
|Location||Musée du Louvre, Paris|
The Raft of the Medusa (French: Le Radeau de la Méduse) is an oil painting of 1818–1819 by the French Romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). Completed when the artist was 27, the work has become an icon of French Romanticism. At 491 cm × 716 cm (193.3 in × 282.3 in), it is an over-life-size painting that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today's Mauritania on July 5, 1816. At least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and madness. The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain perceived to be acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy. In reality, King Louis XVIII had no say in the captain's appointment, since, then as now, monarchs were not directly involved in appointments made to vessels like a naval frigate. The vicomte de Chaumareys' appointment as captain of the Méduse would have been a routine naval appointment, made within the Ministry of the Navy.
In choosing the tragedy as subject matter for his first major work—an uncommissioned depiction of an event from recent history—Géricault consciously selected a well-known incident that would generate great public interest and help launch his career. The event fascinated the young artist, and before he began work on the final painting, he undertook extensive research and produced many preparatory sketches. He interviewed two of the survivors, and constructed a detailed scale model of the raft. His efforts took him to morgues and hospitals where he could view, first-hand, the colour and texture of the flesh of the dying and dead. As the artist had anticipated, the painting proved highly controversial at its first appearance in the 1819 Paris Salon, attracting passionate praise and condemnation in equal measure. However, it established his international reputation, and today is widely seen as seminal in the early history of the Romantic movement in French painting.
Although The Raft of the Medusa retains elements of the traditions of history painting, in both its choice of subject matter and its dramatic presentation, it represents a break from the calm and order of the then-prevailing Neoclassical school. Géricault's work attracted wide attention almost immediately from its first showing, and was subsequently exhibited in London. It was acquired by the Louvre soon after the artist's early death at the age of 32. The painting's influence can be seen in the works of Eugène Delacroix, J. M. W. Turner, Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet.
The Raft of the Medusa portrays the moment when, after 13 days adrift on the raft, the remaining 15 survivors view a ship approaching from a distance. According to an early British reviewer, the work is set at a moment when "the ruin of the raft may be said to be complete". The painting is on a monumental scale of 491 × 716 cm (193.3 × 282.3 in), so that most of the figures rendered are life-sized and those in the foreground almost twice life-size, pushed close to the picture plane and crowding onto the viewer, who is drawn into the physical action as a participant.
Research and preparatory studies
Géricault, who had just been forced to break off a painful affair with his aunt, shaved his head and from November 1818 to July 1819 lived a disciplined monastic existence in his studio in the Faubourg du Roule, being brought meals by his concierge and only occasionally spending an evening out. He and his 18-year-old assistant, Louis-Alexis Jamar, slept in a small room adjacent to the studio; occasionally there were arguments and on one occasion Jamar walked off; after two days Géricault persuaded him to return. In his orderly studio, the artist worked in a methodical fashion in complete silence and found that even the noise of a mouse was sufficient to break his concentration.
The Raft of the Medusa fuses many influences from the Old Masters, from the Last Judgment and Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Raphael's Transfiguration, to the monumental approach of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) and Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835), to contemporary events. By the 18th century, shipwrecks had become a recognised feature of marine art, as well as an increasingly common occurrence as more journeys were made by sea. Claude Joseph Vernet (1714–1789) created many such images, achieving naturalistic colour through direct observation—unlike other artists at that time—and was said to have tied himself to the mast of a ship in order to witness a storm.
Exhibition and reception
The Raft of the Medusa was first shown at the 1819 Paris Salon, under the generic title Scène de Naufrage (Scene of Shipwreck), although its real subject would have been unmistakable for contemporary viewers. Géricault's Raft was the star at the Salon of 1819: "It strikes and attracts all eyes" (Le Journal de Paris). Louis XVIII visited the Salon three days before the opening, and reportedly said "Monsieur, vous venez de faire un naufrage qui n'en est pas un pour vous", freely translated as "Monsieur Géricault, your shipwreck is certainly no disaster". Critics were divided: the horror and "terribilità" of the subject exercised fascination, but devotees of classicism expressed their distaste for what they described as a "pile of corpses," whose realism they considered a far cry from the "ideal beauty" incarnated by Girodet's Pygmalion and Galatea (which triumphed the same year). Géricault's work expressed a paradox: how could a hideous subject be translated into a powerful painting, how could the painter reconcile art and reality? Marie-Philippe Coupin de la Couperie, a French painter and contemporary of Géricault, was categorical: "Monsieur Géricault seems mistaken. The goal of painting is to speak to the soul and the eyes, not to repel." The painting had fervent admirers too, including French writer and art critic Auguste Jal who praised its political theme, its liberal position (the advancement of the "negro", the critique of ultra-royalism), and its modernity. For French historian Jules Michelet, "our whole society is aboard the raft of the Medusa [...]."
Interpretation and legacy
- The official painting record at the louvre website
- A. v. Arnim
- B. v. Arnim
- Grimm Brothers
- Jean Paul
- M. Shelley
- P. B. Shelley
- de Staël
- Félicien David
- Ferdinand David
- Fanny Mendelssohn
- Felix Mendelssohn
- Clara Schumann
- Robert Schumann
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