- Raft of the Medusa
title=The Raft of the Medusa
type=Oil on canvas
Musée du Louvre
The "Raft of the Medusa" ( _fr. Le Radeau de la Méduse) is a work by the French painter
Théodore Géricault, and one of the icons of French Romanticism. An extremely large painting (491 × 717 cm), it was highly controversial at its first appearance in the Salon of 1819, attracting passionate praise and condemnation. The painting depicts the desperate survivors of the French frigate"Medusa," which gained notoriety when it struck the Bank of Arguin off the coast of Mauritaniain 1816, at their first moment of apparent rescue.
The painting was a political statement – the incompetent captain was an inexperienced but politically sound anti-Bonapartist – and an artistic achievement that galvanized romantic painting and led to a break from the neoclassical style. The work was realized on the epic scale of a
history painting, yet— and for the first time in France — it was based on a current news story. [Several English paintings, for example The "Death of Major Pierson" by John Singleton Copley(1783) [http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=3104] also painted within two years of the event, had led the way here, as had emotive works of political propaganda such as Jacques-Louis David's unfinished "Oath of the Tennis-Court" and Napoleonic works such as "Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House at Jaffa" by Baron Gros.] The unblemished musculature of the central figure, waving to the supposed rescue ship, is reminiscent of the neoclassical, but the painting is broadly romantic. The naturalism of light and shadow, authenticity of the haggard bodies, and emotional character of the composition, differentiate it from neoclassical austerity. The "Raft of the Medusa" was a further departure from earlier works because it depicted contemporary events with ordinary and unheroic figures, rather than religious or classical themes. However the ragged state of the figures' clothes means that the "unromantic" nature of modern dress was an issue that could be largely bypassed.
Impressed by accounts of the shipwreck, which had received huge publicity, the 25-year-old artist Théodore Géricault decided to make a painting based on the incident and contacted the authors of published accounts in 1818. In order to make his "Raft of the Medusa" as realistic as possible, Géricault made sketches of bodies in the morgue of the
Hospital Beaujon, and even brought severed limbs into his studio to study their decay. The painting depicts a moment recounted by one of the survivors: prior to their rescue, the passengers saw a ship on the horizon, which they tried to signal (it can be seen in the upper right of the painting). It disappeared, and in the words of one of the surviving crew members, "From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound dispondency [sic] and grief". [Cite book| last=Riding| first=Christine|editor= Patrick Noonand Stephen Bann| chapter=The Raft of the Medusa in Britain| title=Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism| pages=p. 77| location=London| publisher=Tate Publishing| year=2003|isbn=1-85437-513-X] The ship, the "Argus," reappeared two hours later and rescued those who remained.
Géricault used friends as models, notably the painter
Eugène Delacroixas the figure in the foreground with his face turned downward and arms outstretched. Two of the actual raft's ten survivors, Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard, with whom Géricault talked at great length, are seen in shadow at the foot of the mast. [Hagen & Hagen, p.376]
bas-reliefof the painting adorns Géricault's grave in Père Lachaise Cemeteryin Paris. The painting, urgently championed by the curator of the Louvre, comte de Forbin, was bought for the Louvre from Géricault's heirs after the artist's death in 1824.
In other works
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" [Cite book| last=Barnes| first=Julian| title=A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters| pages=p. 320| location=London| publisher=Vintage Books| year=1990|isbn=0679731377 978-0-679-73137-5] the picture is reproduced as a fold out and Julian Barnesuses it as a starting point for one of the book's narratives.
* The untranslated second volume of
Peter Weiss's novel " The Aesthetics of Resistance" ("Die Ästhetik des Widerstands") opens with a detailed historical account of the Medusa and subsequently describes Géricault's painting.
* "The Raft" by
Arabella Edge, published in 2006, is a fictional account describing how Géricault may have come to his painting. (The U.S. edition, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster, is titled "The God of Spring.")
*The rock group Great White used this painting as the cover art for their album "Sail Away".
*The second album by Irish folk-rock group
The Pogues, " Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash", uses the famous painting as its album cover, with the faces of the band members replacing those of the men on the raft. Also, on their album " Hell's Ditch" they pay tribute to the incident with the song "The Wake of the Medusa."
*The layout of the scene is copied in the French comic book "Astérix Légionnaire" (Goscinny/Uderzo, 1967) to depict yet another shipwreck of Astérix's recurring pirate enemies. The captain's comment is the
pun, "Je suis médusé" ("I am dumbfounded"). Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge in their English translation replaced this pun with a different joke specifically relating to the painting, having the captain say, "We've been framed, by Jericho!" [cite web
title =Asterix, the pictorial element
work =Literary Translation
accessdate =2007-06-15 ]
*In the Belgian comic book
The Red Sea Sharks, part of " The Adventures of Tintin", Tintin alludes to the painting on page 39 when Captain Haddockfalls through a raft in the Red Sea.
*In the novel "
The Silence of the Lambs," Dr. Lecter's mind wanders to Géricault's anatomical studies for "The Raft of the Medusa" while waiting for Senator Martin to focus on their conversation.
*A recent quotation of this painting recently appeared on a cover of "The New Yorker" magazine: the controversial artist Kara Walker adapted the composition to represent the African Americans of New Orleans frantically signaling for rescue two years after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees had devastated their city. Walker undoubtedly intended to remind viewers not only of Gericault's painting but of its implied condemnation of the cronyism and incompetence that led to the Medusa disaster. Walker's paper-silhouette composition was entitled "Adrift." [http://blog.art21.org/2007/08/23/kara-walkers-art-graces-new-yorker-cover/]
*On the cover of the book "The Cruel Philosopher: A History of Cannibalism" by
Catalin Avramescu, a work that analyzes philosophical implications of cannibalism in human history
* [http://www.louvre.fr/llv/activite/detail_parcours.jsp?CURRENT_LLV_PARCOURS%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226914&CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673327664&CURRENT_LLV_CHEMINEMENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673327664&bmUID=1181419682643&bmLocale=en The Raft of the Medusa] , The Louvre
*Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen, "What Great Paintings Say", Vol. 1, Taschen, pp.374-7
*The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century, by Jonathan Miles
Atlantic Monthly PressISBN 978-0-87113-959-0
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