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Géricault, Raft of the Medusa

Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, oil on canvas, 193 x 282 inches, 1818-19 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Beth: We're in the Louvre and we're looking at Géricault's enormous painting, the Raft of the Medusa from 1819. Steven: This is actually about an event that had taken place only three years earlier. The story very quickly is that there was a merchant vessel that was often off the coast of Africa, it hit a storm and the captain realized that the ship was going down. He asked the carpenter to take some of the lumber from the ship and to fashion a raft because there were not enough lifeboats. For the most part, the crew and the captain took the actual lifeboats and put the rest of the passengers on the raft. They were going to tow the raft behind them, but when the captain saw that he couldn't make any way pulling the raft, he actually ordered that the rope be cut. Beth: 150 people were on the raft and only 15 of them survived after just 10 days. Géricault shows us the moment when they see the ship that will save them on the horizon; they've just glimpsed it and they're frantically waving down this ship. The Raft of the Medusa is the size of a history painting and yet it is not a history painting, it is not mythology, it's not history, it's not a religious painting, it is a contemporary subject. Steven: The artist has worked for years in his studio to replicate, and accurately as possible, the shipwreck going so far as to actually ask the same carpenter to rebuild the raft in his studio; to go to the morgue, to look drowned bodies, to study everything he could to make it as precise as possible and yet, this is not photographic in any way. This is using all of the traditions of history painting in order to create this tour de force, this incredibly powerful, emotional image. Beth: For all of his efforts to be accurate in some ways, rebuilding the raft, reading of all the newspaper reports ... Steven: Going to the trial actually, where the captain had been indicted. Beth: Right, and as you said, going to the morgue, surrounding himself at times with decapitated heads and amputated arms and limbs in order to keep himself in a kind of gruesome frame of mind of death and mortality. It still has aspects that draw on the tradition of religious painting and history painting. He's obviously looking at Caravaggio. We have strong contrasts of light and dark. The figures are more heroic and healthier than they would have been when they were rescued. There's this strange mixture that we often see actually in romanticism and this is a kind of proto-romantic painting of mixtures of the real and the unreal. Steve: This is a painting, first and foremost, that is about the relationship between man and nature, and the relationship between man and man. Look at the spectrum of emotion that exists in this painting. This is a painting that's about feeling, but it's an expression of feeling through the physical body and so this is an artist who's looked at Michaelangelo quite clearly, but if you start at the bottom left of the painting and you look at the older man who's mourning the now drowned body of his son, this is terrible despair. As you move upward towards the upper right into this apex of hope as we see people trying to flag down that distant ship which seems almost impossible for them to be seen. There's this crescendo of optimism as it moves from lower left to upper right. Look at the bodies, there's so much darkness amongst them it almost seems like those limbs might not belong to individuals, but they are part of some multi-limbed beast. Beth: That rises on this receding diagonal back into space. Steven: That diagonal is like a wave that counters the real wave which is on the left. Beth: That idea of fusing bodies into a single action is something that Géricault would have borrowed also from Baroque art. If you study all the sketches Géricault created for this painting, and he did dozens of sketches and several oil sketches and worked on it, as you said, for a long time, you see that what he worked toward it moving the raft more and more into the viewer's space. It's not taking place in the middle ground. It's not even taking place in the foreground, it's taking place in our space, foreshortened down into the viewer's space, really making this effort to engage us very directly and very emotionally. Steve: That raft looks like it is literally hitting the frame, doesn't it? Beth: Exactly. Steven: Those bodies, both the one whose head is hidden from us and probably just underwater, seems like it's literally just under the frame of the canvas. Beth: The other really important thing about this painting is not just that Géricault took this contemporary subject and painted on the scale and in the style of a history painting, but that he took a politically sensitive subject. The issue was that the captain of this ship who had abandoned these people on the raft had been appointed by the king despite the fact that he didn't really have the qualifications to be the captain of a ship like this. This is an indictment of the monarchy and it's important to remember that we're at the period in French history called the Restoration. The monarchy has been restored. The French revolution had failed. Napoleon had become emperor. Napoleon had been deseated and a king, a monarch, was once again on the throne of France. A corrupt monarch was once again on the throne of France. Exhibiting this painting was really rubbing salt in that wound. Steven: What's interesting is that humanity is brought down to its essential form here. All of the pomp and ceremony of the court certainly has been stripped away. This is a painting that is about man and his essence. Beth: If we look back to neoclassicism, [David] has given us heroic figures who were willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause, for what was right, for liberty and equality. Here we have figures who have nearly died, and many of their compatriots had died, all because of corruption. There's no heroism, there's no cause, there's no patriotism, we've really left neoclassicism far behind and we're moving toward romanticism. Steven: Romanticism and this painting, it's the triumph of emotion itself. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)