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Raft of the Medusa

by Théodore Gericault.

After the fall of the Empire in 1815, the monarchy was restored and Louis the 18th became king of France. This changed the way art was commissioned. Napoleon trusted artists to portray his empire, kings did not. Therefore, the artists were left to their own devices and the subject became eclectic and sometimes scandalous.

The raft of the Medusa is one of those controversial paintings. Gericault chose to paint a true tragedy at sea as the theme of his monumental painting. The piece depicts an improvised raft of desperate men trying to reach safety. The Medusa was a French frigate that sank off the coast of Africa whilst on a mission to colonize Senegal. For 13 days, 150 men clung to the raft and eventually only 10-15 of them survived. Géricault depicts the distant ship that finally rescues the survivors. Those who have more strength and hope get up and make rags to attract the attention of the ship. Those dead, dying or desperate cling to the raft. The weight of their bodies and limbs emphasizes the horror of the scene. The strong contrast of light and shadow, from the pale bodies to the dark agitated sea and the sky, add dramatic tension.

The composition of the painting is classical and we can see this through the pyramidal fall of the forms. However, it is also very romantic through its brutal realism. The realistic representation of death created a scandal in 1819. It is also a political painting and seems to be criticizing the incompetence of the ship's captain and, therefore, against the recently restored monarchy. The presence of a Negro was also interpreted as a protest against slavery.

Gericault was moved by this event and spent a lot of time researching, interviewing survivors and even drawing corpses of the dead. He learned that the survivors had to resort to cannibalism. When it was presented at the Salon in 1819, the painting was criticized for being the antithesis of 'ideal beauty', something that the public was accustomed to seeing in the Salon during this time. Gericault also received praise for the political audacity of painting and its attack on the newly reinstated monarchy.