The Raft of Medusa is the most famous painting by Theodore Gericault. The plot is based on a real tragedy – the crash of the frigate “Medusa” off the coast of Africa, which occurred on July 2, 1816. For the evacuation, a raft was hastily put together, on which 147 people boarded. For nearly two weeks, they were carried across the stormy sea. The artist captured the moment of the highest emotional stress on canvas, when distraught people noticed a tiny point in the distance – the Argus rescue brig.
Painting The Raft of Medusa by Theodore Gericault – a ray of hope in the ocean of despair
The enlightenment of the sky on the horizon symbolizes the possibility of a favorable outcome. The composition is deployed inward, the space of the picture draws in itself. The head of the corpse in the left corner goes under the frame and seems to be in our, real, reality. We see a whole palette of human experiences: from the complete apathy and detachment of the father, who keeps the body of his son from falling into the water, to the triumphant exultation of the young man.
There is no main character – everyone has their own emotions, their own destiny. Someone died right before salvation, someone is gradually leaving life, and someone has perked up and is going to fight to the end. The artist created an image of stunning power of impact, combining the fallen and the living, hope and despair.
Author: Jean Louis André Theodore Gericault (1791-1824).
Year of writing: 1819
Size: 491 x 716 cm.
Style: Romanticism. Genre: Historical.
Technique: Oil painting. Material: Canvas.
Location: Louvre, Paris.
About the autor
From a young age, Theodore Gericault dreamed of creating an epic work, important for society. After reading the book “The death of the frigate” Medusa “”, he fired up the idea to paint a picture on this topic. Even after 2 years, the story of people abandoned to their fate continued to haunt the minds of their compatriots.
The captain of the Meduza received his post under patronage. He proved to be not only a worthless sailor, but also a first-class scoundrel. When the ship ran aground, dignitaries took over the boats, taking a raft with 147 passengers in tow.
A storm broke out and the frightened captain ordered the towing ropes to be cut. The boats landed safely on the shore, and a different lot awaited the people on the raft. They survived the storm, thirst and hunger, they fought for a place at the mast. They rapidly lost their human appearance and descended to cannibalism. On the first night of the forced drift, 20 passengers were killed. By the fourth day, only 67 brothers in misfortune survived. On the eighth day, the healthy threw the wounded overboard. After thirteen days of wandering on the raft, there were 15 alive, five of them later died on the ship.
The authors of the book, engineer Alexandre Corréard and Dr. Jean Baptiste Henri Savigny,
who were among the passengers of the ill-fated raft, posed for the painter. The figure of one of the dead was painted from Eugene Delacroix (Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix), a friend of Gericault. A carpenter who served on Meduza made a small copy of the raft especially for the artist. Theodore made and placed wax figures of people on it. He studied composition from various angles, probably using a pinhole camera.
For a large-scale painting with an area of 35 sq. meters, where all the characters are painted in full size, Gericault rented a spacious workshop. He shaved his head and for 8 months turned into a hermit, going out into the streets only to visit morgues and hospitals. There, the painter tirelessly worked on sketches of dead heads, severed limbs and emaciated bodies. No one before him has approached the depiction of death with such attention.
The harsh coloring of the masterpiece enhances the drama. The gloomy color scheme is built on greenish-brown and leaden shades of water and sky, death tones of naked bodies. Dark red spots are associated with blood. The light seems to flood the canvas diagonally, from the lower left corner to the upper right, repeating the general movement of people.
The Raft of Medusa is a timeless story about the helplessness of man and his primitive cruelty, covered with a thin layer of humanism. Contemporaries saw in the picture a bitter allegory of post-Napoleonic France. Because of this, in the homeland of the author, the work was received without enthusiasm. Only after Gericault’s death, thanks to the efforts of his friend and colleague Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, did the “Medusa Raft” take its place among the pearls of the Louvre collection.