Updated: Mar 13, 2022
The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Theodore Gericault usually makes one of those “must see at the Louvre” lists you find online. I don't disagree with that, but I bet it won't be to everyone's liking, either. It is both well done and unpleasant. But I guess it had to be. Maybe it will be easier to appreciate if you know the tragic story it captured.
Three years before, the French ship Medusa and its crew of about 400 set out for Senegal. The captain, a political appointee, got a little hurried and eventually the ship strayed off course and ran aground about 60 miles off the West African coast. There weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone so about 150 of the crew lashed together a makeshift raft and made for shore. After 13 days adrift, the raft was rescued with only about 15 of its original passengers alive. The rest had either starved, been killed or thrown overboard by their shipmates, or committed suicide. Once the news broke, the story became a national scandal.
The emotions were still near the surface when Gericault began preparing for the painting, preparation that was nothing short of obsessive. He interviewed and sketched survivors, supposedly basing his color palette on their raw feelings. He visited local morgues to study the color of dead flesh and is said to have kept rotting human limbs in his studio so he could observe and accurately portray decomposition. And he went through several concept drawings trying to find the right moment to capture. Imagine yourself in his shoes. You’ve determined to paint a very recent national tragedy. You know that your scene is only going to be one terrible moment of that tragedy. So how would you go about choosing the right one? One of his drawings shows an attempted mutiny on the raft, one depicts the cannibalism that occurred, and another portrays the final rescue. Ultimately he settled on a scene of futility.
In this composition the desperate men on the raft are attempting to get the attention of a far off ship. It’s so far off in the distance that you’ll strain to see it, which to me deepens the sense of hopelessness. Gericault used some fairly potent diagonal staging to direct our eyes. We can follow one line up to the mast and sail and from there it falls on the advancing wave. The beleaguered raft is about to be swamped and they apparently don’t see it coming. His other diagonal leads our eyes up to the hoisted sailor waving tattered cloth at the disappearing ship. Taken together, those two diagonals put us in an awful place. We watch the survivors cling so desperately to a vanishing hope that they don’t see the threat crashing towards them. The scene's foreground heightens the despair for me because it looks like a mass of sailors who are either dead or are about to die.
The affair was recent enough that when the piece went on display it provoked predictably visceral responses. It many ways, it reopened a national wound for France. As one viewer who took it deeply to heart said, “our whole society is aboard the raft of the Medusa.”