The Raft of the Medusa
The painting, The Raft of the Medusa, was created by the French Romantic painter, Theodore Gericault (1791-1824). It is an oil painting on canvas and was painted from 1818 to 1819. It currently hangs at the Louvre in Paris. The Raft of the Medusa is enormous in size, measuring over 16’ tall by 23’ wide, allowing for larger than life-sized subjects.
Color plays an important role in this painting as it sets the mood. When looking at this painting, we immediately take in the graveness of this scene. Gericault’s use of dark colors imparts an ominous tone to the painting. We see the black, brooding storm clouds, contrasted by the sunlight on the distant horizon. Even the greenish-black waves of the ocean communicate the foreboding danger that is present. Conversely, most of the painting’s subjects – the shipwreck victims - are pale; some the grayish color of death.
|The Raft of the Medusa|
The Raft of the Medusa is full of energy and movement. In the foreground we see the white-tops of the rough seas lap at the make-shift raft, threatening to tear it apart at any moment. The sail is billowing as it captures the ocean wind. We can see the movement of the wind in the hair of a few of the men and in the flapping of the material, presumable shirts, that is being flailed by the men in the top right of the painting. In the background the greenish-black waves of the ocean are swelling. The dark wave on the left is ominously approaching the delicate raft. There is also movement within the individual people, as the men point towards the horizon at the approaching ship and as a black man and white man attempt to signal the boat by waiving the material in their hands.
The enormous size of the canvas itself has a significant impact on the viewer’s experience. The scale of the shipwreck victims is larger than life. This photo from the Louvre provides an excellent reference. The tourist to the left is a full-grown adult. We can see how much larger the subjects in the painting are. The impressive size pulls the viewer in to the painting so they experience the painting on a personal level. It gives the viewer the feeling that they are part of the scene, as if they were actually a part of the painting itself.
The Raft of the Medusa is a historical piece inspired by true events surrounding the shipwreck of the French frigate, Meduse. In 1816 the Meduse ran aground. The affluent and rich boarded life boats, leaving behind 150 people who drifted on this a make-shift raft for 13 days. Due to the stress of the conditions and shortage of supplies there was violence among the men and when the food was gone by the first day, many resorted to canniblism. In the end, less than 15 people had survived. This painting illustrates the survivor’s severe conditions and environment just hours before their rescue. We can hardly make out the light in the distant background from the approaching ship, Argus.
|Light from the Argus (circled)|
This painting by Theodore Gericault is very representative of Romanticism movement. Often paintings were created where the subject matter was intended to elicit strong emotions. Moods were conveyed with the use of color. The paintings were very dramatic and oftentimes involved tragedy.
Please watch this brief, two-minute YouTube video by Julia Forbes, Head of Museum Interpretation at the High Museum of Art.