considering that i spent about 8 months of my life researching a single painting, i think it is a good place to start sharing my art historical knowledge. not only do I think this work is very important in the history of art, i also think it is one of the most amazing and intricate paintings i have ever studied.
the story of the raft of the medusa follows that same basic plot line as titanic, with a few minor changes. the medusa was a large ship headed toward senegal that ran off course and crashed in to a sandbank miles from its destination. there were only 6 lifeboats on board, so a shanty raft was created from the pieces of the ship. 148 men and 1 woman boarded the raft, which was supposed to be pulled to safety by the 6 lifeboats. almost immediately the lifeboats cut the ropes to the raft, leaving the 149 people to die. there were no supplies but wine on the raft; cannibalism ensued. within a week there were only 28 survivors. the strong weeded out the weak, and threw 13 of the men who were sure to die overboard. the final 15 men survived another week. the painting shows the final survivors at possibly the point of most despair. they saw the argus on the horizon coming to save them, but slowly it disappeared in to the distance. géricault shows the men making a group effort to flag the ship down. eventually the ship did come back for the men, 5 of the survivors died upon reaching shore.
géricault was an odd duck in his family of businessmen, and secretly trained as a painter. his mother died and left him a sizable inheritance, making it so he would never have to work in his life (i wish he would share). early on, géricault painted works that glorified napoleon's empire. he was in the generation that grew up hearing how great the empire was, but lived through its downfall and reached maturity when the bourbon monarchy took over. he had a first hand account of the shortcomings of the bourbon monarchy, and this greatly affected his art. in 1817 he had a love affair with his aunt (naturally), so he fled to italy to study under the grand masters. when he returned to paris after a year he began to frequent the studio of horace vernet. here he was infiltrated with anti-royalist sentiment. he searched for a meaningful contemporary event that he could paint that would put him on the same level as michelangelo (think this painting). the incident of the raft of the medusa was discussed again and again the studio, and the artist found his subject.
this work is majorly important stylistically and thematically. first of all, making a history painting out of a contemporary event, and making that painting so timeless is a feat that none other could do. gericault does this by removing all signs of the times- the men's clothing is stripped so they are more like classical nudes than 19th century military men. secondly, the coloration, subject matter and large size (this painting is about 16x23 feet!), creates a painting ruled by the 'sublime' and would influence the slowly growing romantic genre. third, and most importantly, this work shows the social ills of the bourbon monarchy. i won't get in to the boring details, no matter how much i want to, but just know that this is huge!
as stated before, this work had a major impact on the romantic genre as a whole. however, there is one specific artist and work that most of you should recognize. delacroix's liberty leading the people was majorly influenced by the raft of the medusa. looking at the two works we can see the similarities- the mass of dead or dying men, the rally around a single person waving a flag, the anti-royalist sentiment etc. delacroix's work was the album art for coldplay's viva la vida. also, the movie les miserables tipped-its-hat off to the work in the best scene.
so there, the raft of the medusa is majorly important and influential, and totally worth studying for 8 months. for those of you who would like to know more, i would love to share! contact me if you have any questions. there was also a book on the new york bestsellers list by jonathan miles called the wreck of the medusa that you should read. it is probably the most accessible and entertaining scholarly book on the painting.