Theodore Gericault began painting at the age of fifteen. Attracted by Michelangelo, Rubens and Caravaggio, he first painted military subjects. Thanks to his Raft of the Medusa, painting produced in 1819 and kept in the Louvre, romantic painting was born. Among the most important artists of Romanticism, he gives us a "raw" realism and not an ideal, thanks to the choice of his subjects, adding strength, emotion and passion.
The Raft of the Medusa: a true story
Théodore Géricault made a name for himself thanks to this work. He paints the story of four naval ships, including the frigate Medusa heading for the coast of Senegal. Faster than the others, La Méduse advances alone towards the coast of Mauritania, ruled by an inexperienced captain who has not set foot on a ship for twenty-five years! Showing deep contempt for her subordinates and ignoring the advice of the sailors, the boat went straight onto a huge sandbar and… was wrecked. We are at the beginning of July 1816.
Thrown into the sea and abandoned by the captain on a makeshift raft, the castaways will suffer twenty-seven days before being rescued. Only fifteen will survive despite hunger, the sun, mutinies, even cannibalism .... This event causes a huge political and social scandal when two survivors tell their story in a book published in 1817. How did the administration could let a ship run by such an inexperienced man .... the only small consolation is that the captain is still sentenced to three years in prison ...
Realism supplants the ideal
Géricault, back from Italy, fascinated by the macabre scenes, begins his work of four meters by seven meters. After a year of documentation, forty-nine sketches, a model of the raft, the study of the corpses as well as the use of the accounts of two survivors, he completed his painting in 1819. Not having received the reception envisaged for his work , he left for England and exhibited it in 1821… there, it was success. But he died in 1824 at the age of 33 ... This painting was acquired by the State the same year. It is currently on display at the Louvre museum.
The ocean takes up two-thirds of the picture, with the raft in the foreground. On a rough sea, under a stormy sky, the hundred and forty nine survivors of the frigate the Medusa, some of whom are already dead, find themselves on this raft of twenty meters long by seven wide. The men with the astonishing looks suffer and the survivors gather their strength. From the tangle of these pyramid-forming bodies emerges an able-bodied man, waving a cloth to attract the attention of the boat passing in the distance. The Argus coming to their aid, will only save fifteen of them.
Through the clouds, the light filters its rays on the bodies of the corpses which are pale. It accentuates the drama, the horror, the suffering, and the death even more. Note that hardly any foot is visible, Géricault does not like them, generally hides them under drapes. Last small detail: Eugène Delacroix is one of the characters ... perhaps the dead man in the foreground, his face against the raft.
The influence of Géricault's painting
The political character of the work is, moreover, indisputable. The trial of the commander, which opens shortly after the rescue, will in fact become the trial of the monarchy and will rally the liberal opposition, and Géricault, by the choice he makes to include a black character at the top of the pyramid, somehow betrays his opinions.
Bold by its theme but also by its fiery composition, its thick touch, its violent contrasts of shadow and light and the realism of the bodies, the Raft of the Medusa was first exhibited at the Salon of 1819 while in height, then at human height, and the violence generated by the direct confrontation between the painting and the gaze of the spectators, provokes a real scandal. By thus upsetting the neoclassicism illustrated by David, this painting imposes its author as the undisputed founder of French Romanticism and paves the way for the generation of artists led by Delacroix.
- Géricault, biography of Jean Sagne. Fayard, 1991.
- The Great Painters - Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa, BD. Glénat, 2016.