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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.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Louvre looking at Géricault's Raft of the Medusa. This is a massive painting. - [Beth] It's 16' x 23' and it's important to remember that large paintings were reserved for important subjects. Subjects that were generally ennobling, or that showed a heroic deed of some sort, and this painting could not be further from that. It's not drawn from Ancient Greek and Roman history, it's not a Biblical subject. - [Steven] The story behind the subject is one of the most gruesome in the history of the sea, that had taken place just three years earlier. - [Beth] The title of the painting, The Raft of the Medusa is referring to a ship called the Medusa. - [Steven] It was part of a small fleet of ships that were trying to reclaim Senegal from the British, as a French colony. And it had about 400 people on board, many of them were settlers. There were about 150 soldiers. - [Beth] The man who was going to be the new Governor of Senegal was also on board. - [Steven] The problems began when the ship ran aground in the open ocean. There weren't enough lifeboats, and so the captain ordered the ship's carpenter to construct a raft from some of the lumber of the boat, to hold everybody that couldn't fit into the lifeboats. - [Beth] Well, naturally, those who went into the lifeboats were those of higher status, the captain, the officers, the politicians, and those that ended up on this makeshift raft were primarily the soldiers and the settlers. The idea was that the raft would be towed. - [Steven] But within only a few minutes when the captain realized that the lifeboat was being slowed by the raft, the line was severed and the raft was allowed to drift out to sea on its own. - [Beth] So, 150 people were abandoned at sea. What happened on the raft was horrific. There was starvation, murder, and of course the worst thing imaginable that happened was cannibalism, and there were even reports that some people were intentionally killed to provide food for the survivors. - [Steven] And to preserve the small amounts of supplies that remained. And all of this is depicted in wrenching detail. The artist interviewed survivors. He made a full scale model in his studio. He created small stages with clay figures in order to organize the figures, and he even retrieved body parts from the morgue, brought them back to this studio in order to be able to accurately depict putrefying remains. - [Beth] You mentioned its naturalism, its realism, but in some ways it's not at all real. The bodies are clearly based on Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, on the studies of the nude figure that artists had to do at the Academy, this crescendo of this pyramid of figures. Clearly things were not organized in this way on the raft. This is a composition by an artist making a statement, saying something. - [Steven] Creating a kind of anti-heroic painting that is still in the visual language of the Academy. - [Beth] The captain had been appointed by the King. Now, the monarchy had been recently restored. You had this revolution that began in 1789 that established a Republic in France that ended with the Napoleonic Empire and the restoration of the monarchy. - [Steven] But the King's representative, the captain of the ship, failed. When Géricault is painting this canvas, he's making a political statement that is anti-monarchic, anti-King. - [Beth] This was an incompetent captain who was appointed by the King and completely failed those he was entrusted to protect. - [Steven] One of the most powerful aspects of this canvas is the composition. The corner of the raft is at the lower center point of the canvas, and it feels as if we can step on to it. - [Beth] The raft is tipped into our space. That corner is foreshortened. This composition is designed to draw us in and up. The artist did many, many sketches, he did his research, but in the end made this decision specifically to draw us in. - [Steven] To make this spectrum of emotion from madness to despair at the bottom left where we see a father mourning that beautiful body of his dead son, to the upper right, where we see an expression of hope. - [Beth] The figure on the right pushes off with his right hand and lifts his left hand up in a last effort to be saved. All of the figures at this moment, when they see the ship on the horizon, actually a moment that they will not be rescued, the rescue will take place a couple of hours later. So, this is actually a moment of false hope. There's a sense of rotting bodies, the stench of death is present here to me. If we think about Neo-Classical paintings like David's Oath of the Horatii, we have figures from classical antiquity sacrificing their lives for a purpose. They are heroes. Here, human life is taken for no reason at all. People are dying because of incompetence, because of abandonment. - [Steven] And this is not neo-classicism. Géricault is hoping to establish a style that we call Romanticism. This is a style that is concerned with human emotion. It's characterized by fluid brushwork, energized composition, with an emphasis on diagonals, on movement. - [Beth] You could think back to artists like Rubens the Elevation of the Cross, the way that the bodies are fused together in a single motion. Romantic artists are looking back to Rubens, they're not looking back as much to Ancient Greek and Roman art. The way that the Neo-Classical artists had done. - [Steven] But they're also concerned, increasingly, with human experience, and with the power and majesty of nature. Here expressed in the wave on the left that threatens to crash over the raft. - [Beth] The Enlightenment had given people a sense that they could control their environment, that they could craft a better future for human beings, create a Republic of laws, get rid of the corruption of the monarchy, and yet here the corruption of a King has had terrifying ramifications. The Revolution had undone, in many ways, the power of the Church. There's no monarchy we can have faith in anymore. Romanticism is very much a style associated with this period after the failure of the Revolution, and the failure of the ideals of the Enlightenment. - [Steven] And as if to underscore that idea, one contemporary critic, after seeing this painting, said "We are all on the Raft of the Medusa."