Title: A Shipwreck
Artist: Theodore Gericault
Date: about 1817-18
Medium: Oil on canvas
Location: National Gallery, London
This dramatic painting, created by Theodore Gericault, tells a powerfully arresting story. The man in the picture demands the viewer’s attention for many reasons, but probably first and foremost because of his apparent perfection: muscles bulge from his tensed legs; every rib and ligament is clearly evident; power seems to ripple from his chest as he hunches over, preparing his tired form to push himself up onto land. With violent waves surrounding him and one strong foot solidly anchored on a jutting rock, the action is paused in a highly emotional shot. If one were to rewind the story being told in this picture, we could watch this man experience a horrifying shipwreck, get tossed and crushed by wave after wave, swim desperately towards land, and finally, sopping wet and near-death, emerge triumphant from the ever-reaching hands of a watery death. If we are to hit play on the painting and watch the rest of the scene, the character would most likely stand up straight, take a deep breath of gratifying oxygen, and perhaps even raise his hands in fists above his head with a wild yell of elation before collapsing to the ground in relief and exhaustion. To be short, his utter victory is undeniable.
The rich symbolism in this painting helps to tell the story. Gericault makes brilliant use of tenebrism, the extreme contrast of lights and darks. In this particular work, the dark background of ominous looking clouds as well as the blue/grey water that still clings to one of the man’s feet provide a stark and shocking contrast to the shining brightness of his body emerging from the water. Gericault is stressing the good versus evil theme here—the man, who plays the hero, is dressed in brilliant light, while the water/nature, the villain, is clothed in darkness. Furthermore, if one was to follow the lines in the painting of the rock’s edge and the position of the man’s body, he will notice that all of them point up and away from the water, again suggesting its inability to maintain its grasp on this powerful, capable human. Everything about this story stresses the man’s ability to survive. In this story, the hero does indeed prove victorious. This is a perfect example of the still-prevalent influence of Classical humanism, in which the human form was studied and admired for its limitless potential to achieve and endure. Gericault deeply admired and attempted to emulate Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, and the dramatic nature of this painting certainly suggests as much.
Gericault is famous for producing scenes in which water is either active or, at the very least, present. In fact, the next painting in this series is his most famous work (coincidently, also about water,), called The Raft of Medusa. Gericault seems to have a special interest for portraying scenes in which there are dangerous and powerful waters. However, it’s important to note that in this painting, the water, though clearly threatening, loses to the power of the man. The villain is outmuscled (quite literally—look at those calves), and is forced to remain in sulky shadows as the alarmingly attractive and alluring man emerges into a self-created spotlight.
Gericault, Theodore. A Shipwreck. 1817. The National Gallery, London. Nationalgallery.uk. The National Gallery. Web. 25 Feb. 2012.