The Raft Of The Medusa By Théodore Géricault

The Raft Of The Medusa By Théodore Géricault

The Raft of the Medusa – originally titled Scene of a shipwreck – was painted between 1818 and 1819 and tells the story of a tragedy.

That was a maritime accident in 1816 that claimed the lives of 160 individuals who perished after boarding the frigate Méduse off the coast of Mauritania.


After becoming stranded on a sandbar, 137 individuals managed to float on a big raft, suffering from hunger and dehydration to the point of devouring one another... Only eleven of them made it out alive.

Three years later, at the age of twenty-eight, Géricault displayed his work at the Salon, measuring nearly five by seven meters. It elicits both praise and rejection, as well as enthusiasm and revulsion.

It was soon after exhibited in London, establishing the young artist (who would die four years later) as one of the romantic school's leaders.

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How was The Medusa's Raft painted?

To render people with bulging muscles, and depict the dreadful pallor of flesh in the process of survival. Géricault worked out hundreds of preparatory works, which are visible in the exhibition at the Roger-Quilliot museum.

He used a model and wax puppets in his studio, inspected cut-off corpses, used companions as models, and took time to detail the anatomy of the subjects.

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Théodore Géricault Inspiration for The Raft Of The Medusa

The painter is influenced by the expressive power of Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo (particularly in the bodies of the damned of the Last Judgment).

As well as more recent artists such as Baron Gros, one of the artist's main influences, who painted Napoleon's soldiers who died at the Battle of Eylau a decade earlier.

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Some have interpreted the canvas's subject as a metaphor for a government in disarray (see modern variations of the picture), such as Louis XVIII's Restoration.

Others see the figure of the "Moor" waving a fabric at the bow of the raft as a symbol of the African peoples' - and oppressed populations' - battle for independence. In contrast to the bodies in the foreground, which are sliding towards oblivion, the ship in the distance and the glow on the horizon speak of hope for a brighter future.

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The Symbolism of The Raft of The Medusa

The Raft of The Medusa shows some continuity with pictorial elements before romanticism, particularly in the selection of theme and dramatic intensity of the representation, but it contrasts dramatically with neoclassical painting's order and tranquility.

Géricault knew that by depicting this tragic occurrence as his first big work, the public's interest would be piqued and he would be able to establish his young career.

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The Raft Of The Medusa Sketch

The Raft Of The Medusa Sketch

The artist was enthralled by the tragic event and conducted a lengthy study and multiple sketches before beginning work on the painting.

He meets two of the tragedy survivors, constructs a very precise model of the raft's structure, and even visits morgues and hospitals to see the color and texture of the dying's skin with his own eyes.

When the painting was initially shown in Paris, at the Salon of 1819, as Géricault predicted, it sparked a debate: some fervently defended it, while others immediately condemned it. Shortly later, the piece was shown in London, completing the young painter's European fame.

It is now considered one of the most admired works of French Romanticism, with artists such as Joseph William Turner, Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, and Édouard Manet influenced by it.

The artwork is maintained at the Louvre Museum and has an irreparable discoloration due to a Judean bitumen primer or an oil made to dry by an abundance of lead oxide and wax.

Where can you see The Raft Of The Medusa?

Louvre Museum

Louvre Museum

Why is the Raft of the Medusa a romantic painting?

Gericault adopted David's approach and infused it with vigor and life.

By its inspiration, its subject of terror drawn from romantic history, and its swept-away motif, The Raft of the Medusa is a classical work, while its pyramidal composition is of historical heritage.

The white rag depicts the symbolism of hope and the rescue to come in the future.

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Political Significance of The Raft of the Medusa

The Raft of the Medusa is above all an aesthetic manifesto. However, it's also distinguished as a political manifesto by some scholars. The painting, which is made up of interlocking triangles, multiplies the opposing lines in an upward movement carried by each other's gestures.

Various moods can be discerned, including the concession of the figure leaning on his elbow and turning his back on the light, the hope of those stretching out their arms towards the rescuing boat, and the abandonment of the defeated bodies. The piece achieves the romantic classicism paradox.

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The Raft Of The Medusa By Théodore Géricault Meaning

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