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The Raft of the Medusa

November 19, 2014

What do you do if you’re athletic and good-looking, talented enough to catch the public’s attention, and you’re engaged in a scandal serious enough to get you horsewhipped and thrown in a French jail? If you’re Theodore Géricault (pronounced Gericho) and you’ve impregnated the young hottie your uncle recently married, you lock yourself away in a studio for two years, shave your head to avoid the temptation of showing your face, and paint one of the masterpieces of western civilization.


Theodore Géricault (1791-1824) is regarded as one of the forerunners of Romanticism, an artistic movement that swept Europe by rejecting classical ideals of perfection by stressing the quality thought to make humans unique—our emotions, our ability to feel. Géricault would have agreed with Amadeus’ Mozart that it was time to stop depicting heroes who looked like they could “shit marble.” Better to show real flesh and blood individuals, not idealizations, with the goal of taking ordinary people and raising them to the level of art’s highest achievement—history painting. But how to do this?


Géricault was a fervid abolitionist who believed the slave trade should be abolished worldwide. An early death would later prevent him from tackling a large-scale canvas devoted to abolitionism, but a subject for a massive painting presented itself when French naval frigate Medusa struck a rock and quickly sank off the coast of Africa in 1816. The captain was a government appointee with little seagoing experience and the rock in question had been clearly marked on nautical maps for centuries. Rather than go down with his ship, the captain and his officers sailed away in lifeboats, leaving 147 people adrift on a hastily constructed raft. Only 15 people survived dehydration, starvation and cannibalism, and their lurid descriptions of life at its most challenging lit a fire in the artist.


Géricault made many preparatory sketches for his painting, interviewed the survivors personally and journeyed to the seashore to study waves. His massive canvas (193.3 in × 282.3 in) depicts the apogee of emotional intensity, the moment when despair turns to elation as the tiny sail of a ship is spotted on the distant horizon. Topping a pyramid of survivors, a Negro waves a rag to catch the ship’s attention. Only one Negro was known to be aboard Medusa, but Géricault added several to his picture.









When exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1819, the work drew a mixed response. Some saw its shocking realism as a heroic departure from classicism, while others thought it a deplorable pile of corpses. In fact, the dead bodies were inspired by Géricault’s visits to Paris morgues where he studied decomposing bodies to make his painting as realistic as possible. He even stole body parts, including a severed head, keeping them on the roof of his studio, painting them in various positions until neighbors complained of the smell.


Géricault wouldn’t live long enough to see the massive influence he’d have on art, a riding accident killed him at 32, but his Raft of the Medusa would serve as a creative buoy to float inspiration for Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and continue into the twentieth century with Picasso’s brutal Guernica.


Some of the corpses on Géricault’s raft look real enough to have inspired creators of The Walking Dead.



Still Life with Body Parts by Géricault




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That is such an emotional painting. And the detail....amazing! Thanks for the lesson, both in art and history.
By: Scott Park on November 19, 2014
Thanks for sharing the history of this painting- fascinating!
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on November 19, 2014
I would have complained too. I can't imagine having a severed head and whatever other body parts around to get the look he sought. Talented man, but a creepy one.
By: Daniel LaFrance on November 19, 2014
good lord. i don't think i would have wanted to be a survivor. dying would have been more merciful.
By: TexWisGirl on November 19, 2014
yikes- glad I wasn't one of his neighbors...he took his work seriously that's for sure. Have to admire his skill and passion.
By: Kathe W. on November 19, 2014
I have to admit I'd never heard of him or this GREAT painting--thanks for the art lesson!!
By: fishducky on November 19, 2014
I love how you know so much about the history of art. Fascinating story behind this piece.
By: Hilary on November 19, 2014
That is one horrifying painting. I like it.
By: Al Penwasser on November 19, 2014
Just an'd have to be one strong dude to whip someone with a horse.
By: Al Penwasser on November 19, 2014
Horrifying and fabulous -- they may not have had a press with cameras there to show it as it happened, but this proves an excellent artist who wanted people to know what happened could fill that gap.
By: messymimi on November 19, 2014
I like the way you tell a compelling story about a single painting, and in the process share about art, history, and philosophy. The content here is harsh, but the composition is breath-taking.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on November 19, 2014
I want to know more about the first part of this story. You know, the part about the young hottie, etc.
By: Catalyst on November 19, 2014
Thanks for explaining Romanticism. The painting seems "busy" to me and like it's trying too hard - but I guess that's why Romanticism is the opposite of realism. Creepy about the corpse head. :P
By: Lexa Cain on November 19, 2014
The sea and action or lack of action of the people show a lot of action and emotion.
By: red on November 19, 2014
He certainly captured the despair and horror. The longer you look the more you see.
By: Akansas Patti on November 19, 2014
I certainly missed an art class in college and really wished you had been my teacher. I did read several books on the impressionists and then the work of Picasso and always loved that period. Maybe a class before I die?
By: Tabor on November 19, 2014
I'm rendered speechless by the story and art. Very impressive, to say the least.
By: Robyn Engel on November 19, 2014
As you know, art is now an important part of my world and I don't know much about it at all! I find this post to be a great lesson so keep them coming! Ray is very much into the life stories of artists so I feel the need to learn about them as well. Thanks Teach!
By: Bouncin Barb on November 19, 2014
What a story, both that of the one behind the painting and of the Artist himself.
By: John on November 20, 2014
He sounds an interesting character. I enjoy your art posts. In fact you've motivated me to try and learn more about art; only yesterday I bought a hefty "History of Art" book and I'm relishing each page - albeit I'm starting from a feebly low baseline.
By: Bryan Jones on November 20, 2014
Thanks for another marvelous and instructive post. The historical perspective is fascinating and the Gericault is extraordinary.
By: Tom Cochrun on November 20, 2014
Add me to those people who had never heard of Gericault or this painting. It's amazing what you teach us with just a few short paragraphs!
By: Pixel Peeper on November 20, 2014
Too much going on, or my glasses are worse than I thought. I find it hard to focus on this one.
By: Val on November 20, 2014
"The Chubby Chatterbox" has been included in the seventeenth edition of our November Nudges series. Be assured that we hope this helps to send many new customers your way.
By: Arlynda Lea Beuterbaugh on November 20, 2014
I like the painting a whole more before you added all of the gory details. (LOL?)
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on November 21, 2014
Thanks so much for this post. Fascinating! I have to admit I was confused at first; your opening question made me think you were talking about yourself.
By: Mitchell is Moving on November 24, 2014
That is quite an unusual artistic story!
By: Michael Manning on November 25, 2014
This is a wonderful story. Steve, you have a historical novel here, if you wanted. You' d have to to go to Paris, the rock, and the coast, of course, but you could write it all off and have a terrific summer. And end ulp with terrific novel. Go for it! Jo
By: Jo Barney on December 4, 2014

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