The Raft of Medusa

Title: The Raft of the Medusa
Artist: Theodore Gericault
Date: 1819
Medium: Oil on canvas
Location: The Louvre, Paris
Dimensions: Hight—4. 91m; width—7.16m

The Raft of Medusa is a vivid painting that leaves the viewer’s memory seared by the evident pain and hopelessness displayed within its frame.  Like Gericault’s other work I’ve included in this portfolio, entitled A Shipwreck, it tells a fascinating story.  This one, however, is a work of non-fiction instead of a work of the artist’s imagination.  In 1816, a French Royal Navy frigate embarked on a sea journey to Senegal in hopes of colonizing it.  Captained by a man who was out of practice when it came to commanding a ship, the boat crashed into a sandbank and began to sink.  Some men escaped on lifeboats, but there was not enough to supply everyone on the Medusa a safe passage to dry land.  Those 150 people remaining on the unusable boat were forced to build a raft and drift out to sea, blindly hoping to reach land.  The journey took thirteen horrific days, and in the end, only fifteen people survived the terrible experience, recounting—among the horrors of almost drowning—the cannibalism and general brutality that infected the raft’s crew several days into the journey.  Many died, and the survivors were damaged forever.  The scene depicted here, just like Gericault’s Shipwreck, is once again a still shot of a highly emotional moment in the story.  Driven mad with despair, the people on the raft see in the far distance a rescue boat and are momentarily overcome with hope and relief, but—if we are to let the scene play out—the rescue boat sails away without noticing them and they are again left for their terrible fate.

This painting is fascinating to study by itself, but it is even more interesting when looked at next to A Shipwreck, Gericault’s prior work.  As mentioned in my earlier study, Gericault uses chiaroscuro to great effect in A Shipwreck, allowing the brilliant whiteness of the human body to shine like a beacon in front of the dark stormy sea.  This emphasizes the human victory over the ocean, over nature, over the gripping hand of death-by-sea.  In that painting, the man is clearly the winner in the battle of human versus water.  The outcome of The Raft of Medusa, however, is quite on the contrary.  Though Gericault still employs chiaroscuro, the shifts between light and dark are much more subtle: the people’s bodies stand out against the dark sea, but not nearly as blatantly as does the body in A Shipwreck.  The only light source in the painting is the leftmost portion of the sky, in which a pinkish hue shines amidst the parting clouds.  However, the possible rescue boat sails in the opposite direction, directly into the darkness, quite away from the hope that the light sky gives.  Furthermore, unlike the man in A Shipwreck, whose body is muscular, powerful, and dominant, the bodies that litter the raft in Medusa appear broken and lifeless—indeed, many are dead.  A man in the lower center portion of the frame seemingly encompasses the hopeless sentiment of the raft.  He stares off into nothingness, making no effort to contact the rescue boat, knowing that the battle is already lost.  And that, that is the most important difference: In A Shipwreck, Gericault paints the man as the victor over water; in Medusa, water is quite clearly the winner over men.  Indeed, the water appears to be reaching up onto the raft, ready to drag it down into its depths as soon as possible.  The victory of water appears all the more powerful next to the victory of man in Gericault’s other painting.  Regardless of who wins, Gericault seems to understand better than many artists the power and danger of that amorphous monster we call the sea.

Gericault, Theodore. The Raft of Medusa. 1819. The Louvre, Paris. The Louvre Museum. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.


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